On the first night of the course in the College of Librarianship, we had the honour, and the pleasure of listening to Mr. Roy Saer of the Folk Museum lecturing on the folk dance tradition of the past here in Wales. As Alice said at the end; “Well, now you see, some of you, that dancing is not just foot-fever !” No indeed. Let us hope now that we have seen the beginning of a custom in our weekend courses.

For reasons of convenience and space, only half the lecture is published now. We will see its second half in a later number.

Dawns 83/84

The Autumn Course Lecture, September1984, Llanbadarn, Ceredigion

Traditional Dance in Wales during the 18th century
D. Roy Saer, Department of Cultural Life, Welsh Folk Museum

Within recent years the Editor of Dawns has found it very difficult to obtain contributions of historical research for this journal. What follows is offered in the hope that it will alleviate the problem a little.

It does not attempt in-depth analysis and interpretation. Neither does it claim to be exhaustive in its presentation of sources. Its basic aim is simply to bring together – though in organised and meaningful sequence – a number of relevant commentaries which have not previously appeared in Dawns and which have also, in most cases, escaped inclusion in W.S.Gwynn Williams’s pioneering Welsh National Music and Dance (London and Philadelphia, 1933) and Barbara Denbury’s recent and useful bibliography, Dawnsio Gwerin Cymreig / Welsh Folk Dancing (Aberystwyth, 1982).

They have escaped, quite understandably, since they do not in themselves form complete or extensive works, and because most of them occur within writings which are not involved primarily with dance as such. One result of this second situation is that they usually leave the actual technicalities of performance unchronicled – which will no doubt strongly disappoint most readers of Dawns. What these commentaries between them do provide, however, is a view of this activity as part of its social context, capturing in the process something of its role and significance within the communities that sustained it, while conveying the conflicting attitudes towards it that were to be found within Wales during the eighteenth century.

They are now submitted for publication not only on their own merit but also in the hope that they will motivate other researchers to delve for additional materials of this kind. The likelihood is that several more such commentaries, in both manuscripts and printed books, still await rediscovery.

Especially recommended as background reading for the present contribution is Dr. Prys Morgan’s The Eighteenth Century Renaissance (Llandybie, 1981). On the rituals formerly associated with traditional dance in Wales, the authoritative work is Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs (Cardiff, 1959).

* * * * *


The gwylmabsant (or mabsant), the parish saint’s festival or wake, was probably the chief occasion for traditional dance, in that it might extend for several days and draw hundreds of participants. Dance was, however, just one of its varied activities. The diaries (for the periods 1734-43 and 1747-60) of squire William Bulkeley, of Llanfechell in north-western Anglesey, portrays the gwylmabsant as including:

the religious services to be read on the day of the patron saint; a reversion to pre-Reformation customs and superstitions; and the purely secular amusements , sometimes a fair, sometimes traditional games, and of course feastings. (1).

Bulkeley’s references to the gwyl mabsant actually make no mention whatever of dancing – which is mystifying, when we consider comparative evidence from some other parts of the country. From Glamorgan, for example, a generation later comes the diary of schoolmaster William Thomas of Michaelston-super-Ely near St Fagans, (2) its contents spanning the period 1762-95 and referring to wakes or revels (or “riots”, as William Thomas significantly termed them) at Michaelston, St Fagans, Fairwater, Whitchurch, St Andrews Major and Penarth. Professor G.J.Williams, discussing the diary in his illuminating article “Glamorgan Customs in the Eighteenth Century”, writes:

Undoubtedly, the most popular festival in Glamorgan, as inother parts of Wales, was the gwyl mabsant (or mabsant), the ‘wakes’ or ‘revels’, once the patronal festival of a parish, when work was suspended, and the inhabitants of all the surrounding districts came together, ‘a great concourse of disorderly people, bawling, drinking, singing, dancing, &c.’.It often lasted for a week, and everybody kept open house. Originally, it began on the Sunday following the festival of the Patron Saint, but by this time, it had lost its religious character, and people came together to dance and sing, and to witness different kinds of rustic games and contests, bandy play, football, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, etc. (3).

A corresponding “inventory” exists for one area in north-eastern Wales. John Hughes of Dolhiryd, Liangollen, was not born until 1802, but one of his manuscripts offers comments upon earlier local tradition as well as his own first-hand recollections:

Ni fyddai Gwylmabsantau ar yr un amser yn mhob plwyf. Yr oedd Gwylmabsant Llangollen yn disgyn ar y Sul cyntaf o Mehefin. Yr oedd yr wythnos hono yn wythnos o Holydays, Nosweithiau Llawen, a Gwledda, Morris dances, Interludes. Ymladd cwn, ceiliogod, ac ymladd dyrnau. Prison-bars, a chwareu pel, etc.Tafarn Llwynmawr, a phared yr Ysgubor ddegwm, oedd yr hynod fan lle y cyfarfyddai y bobl ieuaingc yn benaf. Math ar comedy oedd yr “Interludes” o waith Twm o’r Nant. Nid oes gen i gof am ddim o’r rhain. Ond Mae genyf gof tywyll o weled Dynion yn llewis eu crysau mainion, a rhaini wedi ei haddurno a ribbanau o wahanol liwiau, ac yn rhosynau o bennau ei gliniau i fynu i’w hettiau; Yr oeddynt yn eu slippers, a chanddynt ddau neu dri o ffidlers.’ Byddai y rhai hyn (y Morris dance[r]s,) yn mynd o dy i dy, lle y caent dderbyniad; i ganu ac i ddawnsio, ac i feggio arian cwrw. Ar y cae yn agos i Talygarth isa yr oedd y rhai a welais i. Ty iawn at beth fel hyn oedd Talygarth. (4).

Gwylmabsantau were not held at the same time in every parish. Llangollen’s Gwylmabsant fell on the first Sunday of June. That week was a week of Holidays, Nosweithiau Llawen, and Feasting, Morris dances, Interludes, Dog-fighting, cock-fighting and fisticuffs. Prison-bars and playing ball, etc. Llwynmawr Tavern, and the wall of the Tithe Barn, was the special place where the young people mostly met. The “Interludes” were a kind of comedy, created by Twm o’r Nant. I don’t remember any of these. But I do have a hazy recollection of seeing Men in their linen-shirt sleeves, and those decorated with ribbons of different colours, and covered with roses from their knees up to their hats. They were in their slippers, and had two or three fiddlers with them. These (the Morris dance[rjs,) went from house to house, where they might get a welcome, to sing and dance, and to beg beer-money. The ones that I saw were on the field by Talygarth Isa. Talygarth was an ideal house for this sort of thing. ]

Further evidence relating to the latter part of the 18th century derives from Brecknock, in the writings of the Reverend Thomas Price (“Carnhuanawc”, 1787-1848), a cleric who took enthusiastic interest in traditional music and dance. One of his commentaries concerns a harpist who played at nearby Llanafan’s “feast” in the years before 1800. Of the feast itself it says no more, but it does add some revealing information about the player and his instrument (which was single, and not triple, strung ):

The earliest recollection I have of the harp is that of Old Sam the harper, who lived at Builth, and whom I have often seen, previous to the year 1800, going towards Llanafan feast and other places, to play for dancing, carrying his harp slung at his back. His name was Samuel Davies, and he might have been about 50 years of age at that time. I have also seen him, on the club feast at Builth, play before the club whilst they walked in procession to church. He carried his harp slung about his shoulders. so as to be able to play as he marched along. His harp was a single string harp, and formed like the other single stringed harps of the time. I cannot be very certain of the exact form, but this is the impression I have retained of it in my recollection.

It was between 3 and 4 feet high or thereabouts. When he sat down to play he crossed his feet, so that the back of one foot touched that of the other, and let the bottom of the harp rest on the calves of his legs. Old Sam has been dead many years. I have lately made inquiry respecting his harp, but could not find any trace of it. Old Sam the harper sometimes played for dancing on the green and in the open air on the Gro at Builth. . . .

I have no recollection of the tunes he played, excepting Hen Sibil, and of that 1 only recollect the name, which he pronounced with the accent on the last syllable Hen Sabel. (5).


In addition to the official gwyl mabsant, there were also the major festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun – from the Christian calendar, though seemingly overlaying seasonal ceremonials belonging to the agrarian year-cycle. These, again, were main focal points for traditional dance.

Such calendric climaxes were occasional and intermittent. During the summer half of the year, however, public dancing might occur at any weekend, particularly on Sundays, if not even on week-nights also. Edward Jones (“Bardd y Brenin” / “The King’s Bard”) refers in 1802 to:

. . .the Twmpath, which is a rural Dance on the green, in Summer Evenings; for those dances formerly used to be held periodically, during the summer season.” (6).

In Glamorgan, such occasions were termed taplasau haf, or just taplasau. For outdoor dancing, the venue – within Wales generally – could be the churchyard itself, the village green ( y twmpath chwarae) or simply a convenient field.

Presumably, in researching backwards, it would sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a gwyl mabsant, an alternative festival and a regular twmpath or taplas. These might, obviously, fall on a similar date, especially during the summer half of the year. By the second half of the eighteenth century, considerable confusion and the duplication of festivals had been brought about by the calendar change of 1752, which had made possible both Old Style and New Style celebrations. Even the name used for the occasion might prove ambiguous. Professor G.J. Williams stresses of Glamorgan, for instance, that:

. . . these revels were not really patronal festivals in the old sense of the word, and gwyl mabsant (or mabsant) was used for any kind of an assembly of this kind. Even the ‘May games’ and the ‘assemblies of dance and song’, the taplasau haf, which were held every Saturday throughout the summer and on until All hallows’ day, were called mabsantau. It is quite clear from various entries in William Thomas’s diary that many of them had been organized by innkeepers, and that they were held at regular intervals in the villages of the Vale from Easter until All hallows’ day, and sometimes in two villages in the same parish. William Thomas maintains that the revel held in St. Andrews Major was ‘no more than 50 yrs making’. ‘This week’, he says on October 1, 1764, ‘the rioting & revelling in St Faggans wch they begun by one Edwd John decd father of ye present Jenkin John about this 38 years past . . .’ (7).

At the northern end of the same county, in the parish of Aberdare, three special taplasau haf took place annually, on traditionally appointed dates. These were normally held in the open air, and continued in existence until near the end of the century:

Plwyf enwog iawn oedd y plwyf hwn yn yr oesoedd a aethant heibio am daplasau haf, sef canu a dawnsio, a’r cerddor yn chwareu ei offeryn cerdd iddynt; yr oedd y pedair rhandir wedi penodi tri diwrnod o bob blwyddyn i gyfarfod a’u gilydd, sef Dydd Llun Pasg, Dydd Llun Sulgwyn, a Dydd Hen Wyl Ifan; eto, yr oedd y pedair rhandir yn cwrddyd a’u gilydd mewn pedwar gwahanol fanau, rhandir Dar yn cynnal y daplas ar Don-y-glwyd-fawr, Llwydcoed ar lan Rhyd-y-gored … eto, rhandir Amman yn cyfarfod a’u gilydd wrth lidiart y Bedwlwyn, a Phennor ar Don-ty-pel, y fan y cynhaliwyd y daplas ddiweddaf yn mhlwyf Aberdar. Yn y fl 1789, hwy ddaethant fel arferol i gyfarfod a’u gilydd, a’r tro hwn fe ddygwyddodd i’r tywydd fyned yn chwerw iawn, sef gwynt a gwlaw, fel y gorfu iddynt fyned i ysgubor dyn o’th enw Dafydd Edw. Shon, a phan glywodd yr hen wr y delyna’r dawnsio yn yr ysgubor, fe aeth i dymher ddrwg, ac fe waharddodd y lle iddynt, fel y gorfu i hawb o honynt fyned ymaith, a thyna fel y dybenwyd y daplas haf yn y plwyf hwn . . .

. . . Buwyd yn cynnal y taplasau hyn ar Lan-rhyd-y-gored am fwy na chan mlynedd o amser, ac nid oes uwch 60 neu 70 mlynedd oddi ar eu gadawyd hwynt: y Telynor

yn yr amser diweddaf oedd y diweddar Sion Siams, tad yr hen Delynor campus Richard james, sydd byw yn bresenol yn Aberdar; y don a chwareuid fynychaf oedd “Penrhaw”.’(8)

This was a very famous parish in times past for taplasau haf, which were singing and dancing with the musician playing his musical instrument for them; the four districts had appointed three days of every year to meet together, namely Easter Monday, Whit Monday and Old St. John’s Day; furthermore, the four districts met each other at four different places, the Dar district holding the taplas on Ton-y-glwyd-fawr, Llwydcoed on the bank of Rhyd-y-gored . . . again, Aman district meeting together by the gateway of Bedw-lwyn, and Pennor on Ton-ty-pel, the place where the last taplas was held in the parish of Aberdare. In the year 1789,they came as usual to meet each other, and this time the weather happened to become very rough, with wind and rain, so that they had to go into the barn of a man named Dafydd Edw. Shon, and when the old man heard the harp and the dancing in the barn, he became angry, and forbade them the place, so that they all had to go away, and that was how the taplas haf was ended in this parish.

These taplasau were held on Glan-rhyd-y-gored for more than a hundred years’ time, and it is not above 60 or 70 years since they were abandoned: the Harpist in the last period was the late Sion Siams, father of the excellent old Harpist Richard James, who is presently living in Aberdare; the tune played most often was “Penrhaw’.]

Around mid-century, dance tradition still remained vigorous in the Builth region of Brecknock, as the already – quoted Reverend Thomas Price testifies:

About the year 1750 the young people in Wales were very fond of dancing, as I heard my Aunt Elinor Morgan say . ..

They met together frequently in parties, and danced country dances, some of which had four and twenty variations, all of which were to be danced through; and I think there were variations in the figure of the dance to correspond with those of the tune. When 1 was a boy, I remember playing on the flute the Irish air of Shela na Guiry, to which there are several variations, and my aunt, who was then an elderly woman,said she remembered dancing it when young under the name of Y Crythwr du bach. At these dances the harper seldom played alone, but was generally accompanied by a fiddler.

The harp in use in that part of the country [the Hundred of Builth and the neighbourhood] was generally the single string harp; but the Triple Harp was occasionally seen, …” (9).

And in Montgomeryshire, about the same time or perhaps slightly later, the antiquarian William Jones of Dolhywel, Llangadfan, saw the dances which he noted down for Edward Jones (“Bardd y Brenin”) around 1780.

Those dances have, of course, been published in our own century by W.S. Gwynn Williams. (10). So, too, has the account by the Rev. Richard Warner of a dance that took place in August 1798 at a public-house in Pontneddfechan, in the upper Vale of Neath, Glamorgan.’ (11).

This account is instructive not only because it says a little more than is usual about the actual dancing, but also as a reminder of the vital role traditionally played by the tavern as a venue for dance – an indoor venue this time, and one whose use was obviously not confined to the winter half of the year either.


During the spring to midsummer period, the traditional dance scene – especially at certain specific calendar points – involved the rituals of the maypole and the appearance of Morris dancers. For Wales during the eighteenth century, the evidence so far collected falls far short of covering the entire country, but the county of Glamorgan provides more than one source of data for both maypole and Morris.

These are previously discussed in the publications of Professor G.J.Williams and Trefor M. Owen.

The former discovered and issued the texts of two relevant poems, dating from around the middle of the century, which were produced by the blind poet Wiliam Robert of Yr Ydwal, Llancarfan, south of Cowbridge. “The first one, the seven-stanza “Taplas Gwainfo” ( “The Taplas of Wenvoe”), is both an invitation to the dance and, more particularly, an eulogy to the maypole so ceremoniously prepared and hoisted at a nearby village. The pole is referred to, however, as a “coeden haf’ (“summer tree”) or “bedwen” (“birch”) rather than a “May pole” – which is significant, since the song makes it clear that it is traditionally erected not on May-day but on “nos Gwyl Ifan” (St. John’s Eve), that is, Midsummer’s Eve, on the 23rd June.

Wiliam Robert alludes to the taut strings of musical instruments, to the young men and women in their silks coming together on Saturday evenings, and to skilful dancers appearing for every festival. The perfectly-rounded birch has been donated by local squire Sir Edmund Thomas, and prepared by his carpenters, before being colourfully decorated (or painted?) by the men and, finally, dressed with giltand ribboned torques by the women. At its top it sports a golden cockerel, speared to act as a weather-vane, and also bedecked with ribbons. Some mouths, says the poet, will water at the prospect of stealing the birch and removing it from its locality, but there are stout defenders ready to protect it.

Many of these allusions are corroborated by Morgan Rhys of Ystradowen, a few miles away, in an account which is actually dated 1842 but might well refer back into the eighteenth century. (Curiously, it dates the raising of the birch as Easter Monday – at the start of the taplas season – which might imply either faulty knowledge or memory on the part of the author, or a local variation or later change in traditional practice.)


We shall now describe the old mode of celebrating the wakes in this neighbourhood. The first thing they did was to hoist a birch bough on Easter Monday (the birch was selected because it was the straightest of all the trees). On the morning of the above day the ladies met in the church-yard for the purpose of decking the bough with ribbons, and the most honourable lady in the parish placed on it the handsomest rosette, whilst all the other girls contributed ribbons according to their means. When the women had finished their task of decking the birch bough, they were assisted by the men in lifting it upon the cross in the churchyard, in the presence of all the other parishioners, whilst the harpers were playing appropriate airs. Great was the joy of the whole parish on the occasion. Having thus placed it, beautifully decked, on the cross, they set watchmen to guard it for four days and four nights, lest it should be stolen. For it was considered a great disgrace for ages to the parish that lost its birch, whilst on the other hand, the parish that succeeded in stealing a decked bough, ;and preserving its own, was held up in great esteem. Old people say that the parish of Llanddunwyd enjoyed this honour. According to usage, no parish that had once lost its birch could ever after hoist another, until it had succeeded in stealing one that belonged to some of the neighbouring parishes. Easter week was spent amidst the greatest joy and amusements. At daybreak on Easter Saturday the mistresses and their maids arose in order to finish their work by two o’clock in the afternoon, the time fixed for meeting in the pavilion or church-yard, to commence dancing, which was continued until sunset, when all departed for their respective homes. Musicians were hired for this dance, that is, a harper and a fiddler; and great was the desire of both old and young to witness the periodical return of this festive season. ” (13).

For the Morris dance, it is the same two writers who furnish our information.

Wiliam Robert of Yr Ydwal produced a dozen stanzas in praise of “Y Corelwyr” – the Morris side – of his own village, Llancarfan. He claims that the six men involved, resplendent in their silks, are famed throughout Glamorgan as the most skilful – although every village has its own side. Each of the dancers is then allocated a stanza in which he, is commanded not only for dancing (including leaping) skill but also for his personality and character. To round off, Wiliam Robert sings of the accompanying ritual figures “Sion y Nel” (“John O’Neill”) and “Mawd Mariwn” (“Maid Marian”) – the former, with his “cat’s tuft”, ugly and frightening; the latter fat and coarsely comic – and the song closes with a tribute to the masterly fiddle-player Thomas Lewis.

Morgan Rhys’s commentary under the caption “Morris Dance” differs from the above in most respects and apparently does not describe traditional Morris at all. However, the possibility of the name “Morris Dance” having been used for this dancing is of interest and his commentary is anyway of relevance to the present journal.


It was necessary that there should be twenty-four young persons, handsomely dressed, for this purpose; that is, twelve young men, and the same number of the other sex. The youths of the parish in which this entertainment took place, invited to their aid such young persons from an ad-joining parish as possessed skill and capacities for the dance. It was incumbent upon them to understand perfectly the tones of the harp, and various other matters, since they had many ceremonies to perform, and the more they performed for their wages, the more they were regarded as champions. Each of the young men had a shirt of fine linen, with two knots of ribbons on each arm, and on the young women’s heads were arranged several such knots, which on the occasion were considered very ornamental. It was necessary that each couple should be equally acquainted with the strains of the harp. Old people testify that youths were the best adapted for this diversion. The largess bestowed upon the harper in anticipation of this time was a handsome new hat, with a silver lace around it.” (14).

For north-eastern Wales we have already – on page 7 above -quoted John Hughes’s description of Morris dancing near Llangollen, as witnessed at the beginning of the nineteenth century but more than likely perpetuating an earlier tradition. It is worth adding here that in the north-east, as Trefor M. Owen has shown, both the Morris dancers and the “cangen ha(f)” (the “summer branch”, which was actually carried around by a member of the dance-party) were especially connected with “Calan Mai”(“May Day”). (15). The Morris dancing, which was termed “dawnsio ha(f)” (“summer dancing”), might however be seen at additional times during the spring-summer period.


Although explicit accounts are even rarer for celebrations within the home, involving family and friends and acquaintances, we may take it that dance frequently had its place in such a situation as well.

The celebration might, of course, be part of a rite of passage within the human life-cycle. For example, Lewis Morris, in describing marriage customs in eighteenth – century Anglesey, states that

“They come home from church, dinner custards & paying on a plate drinking woeing, dancing, campio, each paying his shott, Fighting; . . .” (16)

-producing, it would seem, almost a miniature gwylmabsant on the hearth! (And dancing had already taken place before the marriage ceremony. Morris adds: ” In their way to church Plays fiddles or harps & dance morris dances all ye way.”)

The occasion might on the other hand be a “private” function within a general calendric festival. The diary of squire William Bulkeley of Llanfechell, Anglesey – already referred to above – reveals that he regularly used to entertain his neighbours at Brynddu on the 6th January (“Twelth Day”) and also that harpists and fiddlers played there during the Christmas period, with the harpists in at least some cases being retained for days or even weeks. During the period 1737-56 Bulkeley chronicles the following items of payment to instrumentalists:

[ 1 February 1737/8] . . . gave Rice Gray the Harper, that had been playing here most nights since the Holy-days.6s.

[ 20 January 1740/1] . . . gave to Rhys Gray my old Harper 2s. 6d. being the Father of 4 poor children.

[9 January 1748] . . . gave Richd. Evans a Harper from Pwllhely that played here these 3 last days 2s.

[13 January 1749] . . . gave 2s. 6d. to one Owen Morris of Carnarvon who was the first Harper that offered himself who for that reason I retained, but the worst I believe as ever handled a harp.

[29 December 1750] . . . gave 6d. to a fidler that played for the girls.

[7 January 1755] . . . gave Will Wyllt that played the fiddle here yesterday 2s.

[7 January 17561] . . . gave 2s. to the fidler that played at my house yesterday. (17).

In actual fact, Bulkeley offers no mention whatever of dancing on these occasions and we can only reflect on the possible validity of these items as circumstancial evidence.

Our final quotations here feature additional “private” celebrations which are also calendric (within the agricultural work-cycle).They stem from the completion of harvesting, and in each case convey the high rapture of the occasion erupting into dance.

In August 1736, from Stackpole Court, in southern Pembrokeshire, bailiff John Wright wrote to his master in London reporting on domestic matters at Stackpole.’8 Part of one of his letters reads:

[August 17]The fiddler has been here and the people have had a fine dancing in the new room designed for Mrs. Evans over the drawing room. About Thursday they think of cutting the neck and the fiddler is ordered to attend for the people to dance, but there will be no dancing in the Court as they used, it being full of stones for the building. (18).

A subsequent letter, however, reveals that Wright had not allowed for the surge of elation which cutting the “neck”, the very last tuft of corn would release! No doubt, too, the precedent of tradition demanded that the ceremonial should not be deprived of its usual finale.

[August 22] I have been in Cardigan when I met several gentlemen that enquired after your health. Whilst 1 was abroad the harvest people cut the neck and notwithstanding all the stones about the Court would have a dance. The dance was The Three Shopkins. There was a noble feast. The bill of fare was as follows: four quarters of mutton, a side of bacon, apiece of beef weighing half a hundred-weight, twelve gallons of ‘buding’ besides cabbage and other greens. They seemed very pleased with their entertainment.

A generation later, but on the very same day of August, the harvesters at Penbryn farm, Goginan, in the hills east of Aberystwyth, cut loose with even greater abandon, as the diary of farm-owner Lewis Morris records:

The 22nd. – Wawch daccw 45 o bobl gwedi bod ddoe yn medi y rhyg eiddof, a pheth pys hefyd – brecwast o fara a chaws a llaeth a maidd. Cinio o lymru a llaeth a bara ymenyn, ond y swpper sef y pryd mawr, o loned padell ddarllo o gig eidion, a chig defaid, ag araits a thattws a phottes a phwding blawd gwenith, ag ynghylch 20 alwyn o ddiod fain a thros ugain alwyn o gwrw, a rhoi tannau yn y ffidil goch bren, a ffidler yn canu iddynt gwedi bwytta lloned eu boliau, a mynd i’r sgubor ar y llawr coed, a dawnsio o honynt ynohyd nad oeddynt yn chwys diferol a sten fawr a chwrw wrtheu cluniau, a darn o dybacco i bob un. Dyna fywollaeth! (19).

The 22nd. – Behold 45 people having been yesterday reaping my rye, and sore peas as well – breakfast of bread and cheese and milk and whey. Dinner of flummery and milk and bread and butter, but the supper, which was the big meal, of a brewing-pan full of beef, and mutton, and carrots and potatoes and pottage and wheatflour pudding, and around 20gallons of small beer and over twenty gallons of strong beer, and strings were put in the wooden red fiddle, with a fiddler playing for them after eating their bellies full, and they went to the barn on the wooden floor, and danced there till they were dripping sweat with a large jug of beer at their sides, and a piece of tobacco for each one. That was living !]

The above quotations, taken together, suggest a once vigorous tradition of dance which involved, whether actively or less directly, a substantial corpus of the population. Why therefore, did such a tradition weaken and eventually disappear?

What rendered it especially vulnerable were the extra-dance associations which are conveyed in these commentaries: the drinking, the licentiousness, and the violence even. In a chapter entitled “The Passing of the Traditional Life”, Dr Prys Morgan in his volume The Eighteenth Century Renaissance, discusses the significant change in attitude and demeanour which then came about within Wales, and emphasises that:

The new way of life, which had affected the gentry by 1700,was genteel, sober, commercial, economical, individualistic. . . It came more and more to affect the middling sorts and lower orders after 1700. (20).

The unbridled excesses of the old gwyl mabsantau were hardly compatible with these advancing progressive values.

Inevitably, dance was to incur puritanical wrath, and, being a visible – and audible – phenomenon, it presented an easily identified target. Its undesirable related activities alone would have tarnished its image beyond restoration, but probably just as crucial was the ominous feature inbuilt in the kind of dance that was most widespread. Social dance, or country dance, was mixed dance, in which the sexes came into tempting physical proximity.

Not unexpectedly, the cleric satirist Ellis Wynne, in his Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc (Visions of the Sleeping Bard) of 1704, did not fail to take a few swipes at dance and its accompanying instruments the harp and fiddle -as his portrayal of Death’s encounter with four fiddlers vividly demonstrates.

Ni chawswn i fawr edrych na chlywn alw at y barr bedwar o ffidleriaid oedd newydd farw. Pa fodd, ebr Brenin y Dychryn, a daed gennych lawenydd na ddaliase chwi o’r tudraw i’r Agendor, canys ni fu o’r tu yma i’r Cyfwng lawenydd erioed? Ni wnaethom ni, ebr un Cerddor, ddrwg i neb erioed, ond eu gwneud yn llawen, a chymeryd yn distaw a gaem am ein poen. A gadwasoch i neb, ebr Angeu, i golli eu hamser oddiwrth eu gorchwyl, neu o fynd i’r Eglwys, ha? Na ddo, ebr un arall, oddieithr bod ymbell Sul wedi gwasanaeth yn y tafarn-dy tan dranoeth, neu amser hfi mewn twmpath chwarae, ac yn wir, yr oeddym ni’n gariadusach,ac yn lwccusach am gyn’lleidfa na’r Person. Ffwrdd,ffwrdd a’r rhain i Wlad yr Anobaith, ebr y Brenin ofnadwy, rhwymwch y pedwar gefn-gefn, a theflwch hwy at eu cymeiriaid, i ddawnsio’n droednoeth hyd aelwydydd gwynias, ac i rygnu fyth heb na chlod na chlera. (21).

[ Translation:
I had barely looked when I heard called to the bar four fiddlers who had just died. How is it, said the King of Fear, since you love merriment so much, that you had not stayed beyond the Abyss, because there was never any merriment this side of the Chasm ? We have never, said one Musician, done harmto anyone, but made them happy, and quietly taken what we would get for our pains. Did you ever detain anyone, said Death, to lose time from their work, or to go to Church, ha? No, said another one, except for being on the occasional Sun-day after service in the tavern till the following day, or in summertime at games, and truly, we were better loved, and luckier for an audience than the Parson. Away, away with these to the Land of Despair, said the awesome King, bind the four back-to-back, and throw them to join their companions, to dance barefoot on white-hot hearths, and to grate for ever without praise or payment.]

Wynne’s invective in this direction, however, was overall restrained enough when compared with that of his lesser-known contemporary the Reverend Rhys Prydderch, a Minister of the Gospel from Carmarthenshire. In 1714 was published his booklet entitled Geminau Doethineb (Gems of Wisdom), part of which is a catechism upon twelve sins -and at the very top of his target list appears “Dawnsio Cymmyscedig” (“Mixed Dancing”). A little of the preliminary sparring between the Dancer and the Minister will convey Prydderch’s particular phobia:

D. Nid yw y rhai sy’n dawnsio yn meddw dim drwg.

G. A’r Arglwydd a welodd, mai am] oedd drygioni dynar y ddaiar. a bod holl fwdad meddyl-.ftyd ei galon, yn unigyn ddrygionus bob amser. Gen. Vl, 5. Onid swn canu aglywafi ? A bu wedi iddo ddyfod yn agas i’r gwersyll, idde weled Llo a’r dawnsiau, ac ennynodd dy gofaint Noses. Exod. XXX11. 18.&c.

D. Ni chlyweis i ddyfod drwg o ddawnsio erioed, ni wn i pa ddrwg yw ef.

G. Yr ydych yn cyfeiliorni gan na wyddoch yr scrythurau. Mat. XX11.29. Onid dawnsio a fu achos o lw annoeth Herod, ac o dorri pen y Bedyddiwr ?

D. Those who dance do not mean any harm.

M. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Gen. VI,S. But the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot. Exod. XXX11,18 etc.

D. I have never heard ill come of dancing. I do not know what harm it is.

M. Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures. Mat.XX11,29. Was not dancing the cause of the unwise oath of Herod, and the beheading of the Baptist ?] (22).

The prominent position of Carmarthenshire in the slightly later Methodist Revival is well-enough known. Interestingly, an early reference to the demise of a seasonal dance-festival stems from the same county. It refers to the Mynydd Mawr district, near Llandybie:

Yr oedd dawnsiau yn cael eu cynnal ar Fanc y Naw Carreg ac ar fan arall o’r enw Pant-teg. Yr oedd y ddawns i ddechrau ar Ddydd Gwyl Ifan, ac i barhau, os byddai’r tywydd yn f fafriol, am naw diwrnod. Yr oedd un neu ddau delynor, a’r gynulleidfa yn wryw a benyw yn dawnsio. Yr oeddent yn gosod Bedwen yn y ddaear, ac yn addurno’r canghennau achylchau o flodau. Y torchau prydferthaf a roddid ar y canghennau uchaf. Bu yr arferiad hwn yn cael ei gynnalhyd y flwyddyn 1725. (23).

Dances were held on Banc y Naw Carreg and at another spot called Pant-teg. The dance was to start on St. John’s Day, and to continue, if the weather were favourable, for nine days. There were one or two harpists, with the audience, both male and female, dancing. They would plant a Birch in the ground, and decorate the branches with circles of flowers. The prettiest torques were placed on the topmost branches. This custom was kept up until the year 1725. (23).

A few years on, in 1741, in the adjoining county of Glamorgan, the late-summer into early-autumn revels met a more than worthy opponent in Charles Wesley himself. Part of his journal for that year reads:

Thur., August 27th. . . I went to a revel at Lanvase, and dissuaded them from their innocent diversions, in St. Peter’s words.. ‘For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries.’ An old dancer of threescore fell down under the stroke of the hammer. She could never be convinced before that there was any harm in those innocent pleasures.

Mon., September 14th. I rode to a revel at Dennis-Powis. It was one of the greatest in the country; but is now dwindled down to nothing . . . Tues., September 15th. 1 was at another famous revel in Whitchurch which lasts a week, and is honoured with the presence of the gentry and Clergy,far and near. 1 put myself in their way, and called, ‘Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light’. 1 trust there was a great awakening among the dead souls. (24).

From Brecknock, a later observation by the Reverend Thomas Price (“Carnhuanawc”) illustrates how the campaigning of the Methodists was taking its toll there by the second half of the eighteenth century:

The introduction of Methodism made a great change in the habits of the people. Dancing was altogether discouraged as profane. My father told me that he remembered an old man 1 think about Llangamarch or Abergwesin, who play’d the harp, but who joined the Methodists or Dissenters and then gave up the harp and threw it under the bed, where it lay till it got mildewed and worm-eaten and fell to pieces. (25).

Again from Llangamarch we have the following anecdote in which a local fiddler yields the day and even his instrument to the Reverend Isaac Price (1735? – 1805), minister of Crug-y-bar, near Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire:

Teimlid dylanwad gweinidogaeth Mr. Price gan gylch eang iawn. Dywedir ei fod yn mynd un diwrnod trwy bentref Llangammarch. Yr oedd yno hen “fiddler” o’r enw Thomas Prys. Pan welodd hwn Mr. Price yn myned heibio, gwaeddodd ar ei ol. “Isaac Price, deuwch yma.” “I ba beth,Thomas?” ebai Mr. Price. “I chwi gael y “fiddle” yma gennyf fi, oblegid yr ydych chwi wedi myned a’r babl oll yn barod,” ebai Thomas.] (26).

[ Translation:
The influence of Mr. Price’s ministry was felt over a very wide area. It is said that he was one day going through the village of Llangamarch. There was there an old fiddler by the name of Thomas Prys. When this one saw Mr. Price going past, he shouted after him: “Isaac Price, come here.” “For what, Thomas?” said Mr. Price. “For you to have this fiddle from me, because you have taken all the people already,” said Thomas.]

In the same period, the scene of transition portrayed by the Montgomeryshire antiquarian William Jones, of Dolhywel in Llangadfan, might also reflect more than the natural turnover of living folk-tradition :

They formerly here had Dances to Ffarwel Ned Puw, Y Fedl(e) Fawr, Neithiwr ac Echnos, Crimson Velvet such like, but these were left off before my time. (27).

And towards the close of the century, the Reverend Thomas Charles (who had by then joined the ranks of the Methodists) was triumphantly putting down traditional music and dance wherever he came across them. In December 1791 he could claim of the town of Bala, Meirionydd, that:

This revival of religion has put an end to all the merry meetings for dancing, singing with the harp, and every kind of sinful mirth, which used to be so prevalent amongst young people here. And at a large fair, kept here a few days ago, the usual revelling, the sound of music, and vainsinging, was not to be heard in any part of the town; a decency in the conduct, and sobriety in the countenances, of our country people, appeared the whole of that fair, which I never observed before; and by the united desire of hundreds, we assembled at the chapel that night, and enjoyed a most happy opportunity. (28).

During the following May, another of his letters joyfully announced:

. . . every scriptural satisfactory evidence that we can possibly desire; such as deep conviction of sin, of righteousness and judgment, – great reformation of manners -great love for and delight in the Word of God, in prayer, in spiritual conversation and divine ordinances – These, in particular in young persons, occupy the place and em-ploy the time that was spent in vain diversions and amusements. No harps, but the golden harps, of which St.John speaks, have been played on in this neighbourhood for several months past. The craft is not only in danger but entirely destroyed and abolished. The little stone has broken in pieces and wholly destroyed these ensnaring hindrances. (29).

Without doubt, the chief reason for Charles’s fierce antagonism towards the harp was that of all instruments this was then the main accompanying instrument for dance within most, if not the whole, of Wales. And how did the instrumentalists themselves feel about the threatened extinction of their craft? Many of those who abandoned their old vocation might well have derived greater joy from their alternative calling. One distinguished Welsh harpist, however, placed on record his distressed reaction to the situation brought about in Wales by the Nonconformists:

The sudden decline of the national Minstrelfy, and Customs of Wales, is in a great degree to be attributed to the fanatick impostors, or illiterate plebeian preachers, who have too often been suffered to over-run the country, misleading the greater part of the common people from their lawful Church; and dissuading them from their innocent amusements, such as Singing, Dancing, and other rural Sports, and Games, which heretofore they had been accustomed to delight in, from the earliest time. In the course of my excursions through the Principality, 1 have met with several Harpers and Songsters, who actually had been prevailed upon by those erratic strollers to relinquish their profession, from the idea that it was sinful. The consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest, and happiest countries in the World, is now become one of the dullest. (30).

That bitter lament was issued in 1802, by Edward Jones, “Bardd y Brenin” (“The King’s Bard”). Clearly he was responding as Anglican as well as musician. It must be borne in mind, too, that although his youth had been spent at Llanderfel near Bala, he had lived in London since 1775, and was largely dependent on data supplied by correspondents within Wales, correspondents whose information might hold for one or more regions but not necessarily for all. Neither, for obvious and different reasons, can we expect an unprejudiced picture from Thomas Charles (who is said to have been strangely affected whenever he entered a room containing a harp!). A more balanced observer, it seems, may be found in the already-quoted John Hughes, of Dolhiryd, Llangollen. Born in the nearby Ceiriog Valley in 1802 – the year of Edward Jones’s outburst – he later had this to say of his own childhood period and earlier:

Ni welais i erioed wylmapsant na chwareu pel, nac ymladd ceiliogod; Yr [oedd] y pethau hyn yn darfod yn raddol pan oeddwn i yn blentyn. Yr oedd crefydd wedi gwneuthyr gwareiddiad mawr yn [y] wlad; A hen bobl yr Interludes, a Champions y chwareuyddiaethau yn darfod, a neb yn codiyn eu lle. Nid llawer o flynyddoedd oedd er pan ddechreuodd y Methodistiaid Calfinaidd yn y Glyn; a byddai ei cyfarfodydd blynyddol yn y Glyn yn cael ei cadw yn yr Ysgubor Ddegwm . . . Bu Gwylmabsantau a chwareuyddiau llygredig yn cael eu cadw i fyny yn Llansilin, Llanrhaeadr ar ochor yna yn hir at ol darfod yn y Glyn. Felly hefyd, yn y Cefn Mawr. Bu ymdrech Ellis Evans, ar Cyfarfodydd Pregethu ar adeg y Gwylmabsantau, yn foddionyn y diwedd i’w diffodd o’r wlad. (31).

I never saw a gwylmabsant nor ball-game, nor cockfighting. These things [Were] gradually coming to an end when I was a child. Religion had greatly civilised the country; and the former people of the Interludes, and the Champions at games were dying out, without anyone taking their place. It wasn’t many years since the Calvinistic Methodists had begun in the Valley; and their annual meetings inthe Valley were held in the Tithe Barn . . . Gwylmabsantau and corrupt games were kept up at Llansilin, Llanrhaeadr and that side long after coming to an end in the Valley. It was the same, too, at Cefn Mawr. The effort of Ellis Evans, and the Preaching Meetings on the dates of the Gwylmabsantau, were the means, finally, to extinguish them from the country.]

Between them, such quotations might sound like the very death-knell of traditional dance in Wales being rung around 1800. In fact, however, the story by no means ends there. When we come to seek equivalent evidence from the nineteenth century we find ourselves, time and again, astonished by the tenacity of this dance tradition in certain areas. That evidence, it is hoped, will be presented in future issues of Dawns.


1. G.Nesta Evans, Religion and Politics in Mid-Eighteenth Century Anglesey (Cardiff, 1953), 56. The original diaries of William Bulkeley are today Henblas Manuscripts 18 and 19 in the library of the University College of North Wales,Bangor.

2. William Thomas’s diary is housed at the Central Library, Cardiff, as manuscript 4.877.

3. Gwerin (ed. Iorwerth C.Pcate), vol.1, no. 3 (Oxford, June 1957), 100.

4. Manuscript WFM 3021,pp.60-1, at the Welsh Folk Museum. The manuscript was discovered and collected by my colleague Robin Gwyndaf.

5. Reproduced in The Literary Remains of the Reverend Thomas Price, Carnhuanawc (ed. Jane Williams), vol. II (Llandovery, 1855), 20-1, The original source is now manuscript NLW 1464:D at the National Library of Wales. In the manuscript illustration of Sam Davies’s harp the fifteen strings actually reach the sound-holes! However, at their upper end there are only fourteen tuning-pins drawn.

6. ne Bardic Museum (London, 1802), p.xv.

7. Loc. cit.

8. Gardd Aberdar (Carmarthen, 1854), 41 and 56.

9. Reproduced in The Literary Remains of the Reverend Thomas Price, Carnhuanawc, vol. 11 , 42, from manuscript NLW 1464. D at the National Library of Wales.

10. Initially in Welsh National Music and Dance (London and Philadelphia, 1933),131-6, and later as a separate publication, The Llangadfan Dances, under the joint editor-ship of Lois Blake and W.S.Gwynn Williams.

11. W.S.Gwynn Williams, Welsh National Music and Dance, 118-9.

12. G.J.Williams, “Wiliam Robert o’r Ydwal”, Llen Cymru (ed. G.J.Williams),vol. Ill, part 1 (Cardiff,1954). 47-52.

13. “Legendary Lore: Unpublished Traditions of Glamorganshire”, The Cambrian journal,11 (London, 1855), 68-9.

14. Ibid., 69-70.

15. See Welsh Folk Customs (Cardiff, 1959), 101-8.

16. Hugh Owen, The Life and Works of Lewis Morris, 1701-1765 (Anglesey, 1951), 142.

17. Listed in Dafydd Wyn Wiliam, Rob–rt ap Huw (1580-1665) (Denhigh, 1975), 63.

18. Reproduced in Pembrokeshire Life: 1572-1843 (eds. UE. and K.A. Howells),Pembrokeshire Record Series, vol. 1 (1972). I am grateful to Robin Gwyndaf for drawing my attention to these references as quoted to him in letters dated 27 May 1978 from the writer Roland Mathias of Brecon.

19. The Letters of Lewis, Richard, William and John Morris of Anglesey (MorrisiaidM8n), 1728-1765 (ed. J.ILDavies), vol. II (Aberystwyth, 1909), 242.

20. P.33.

21. Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwse (University of Wales Press edition, Cardiff, 1948),67-8.

22. Quoted, with English translation, in W.S.Gwynn Williams. Welsh National Musicand Dance, 120-1.

23. Quoted in Gomer XRoberts, “Mynydd Mawr Traditions”, Carmarthen Antiquary,vol. 1, part 1 (Carrnarthen, 1941), 59-60.

24. Quoted in G.J.Williams, “Glamorgan Customs in the Eighteenth Century”, loc. cit.

25. Quoted in Ann Rosser, Telyn a Thelynor (Cardiff,1981), 44, from manuscript NLW1464:D at the National Library of Wales.

26. Ben Davies, Crugybar (Nantgaredig, 1927),27. 1 am grateful to Dr Meredydd Evan sfor providing me with this reference.

27. Quoted in W. S. Gwynn Williams, Welsh National Music and Dance, 123-4, from manuscript NLW 171:E at the National Library of Wales.

28. D.E.Jenkins, The Life of the Reverend Thomas Charles of Raja(Denbigh, 1910), vol 11 , 90.

29. William Hughes, Life and Letters of the Reverend Thos. Charles B.A., of Bala (Rhyl, 1881), 182.

30. The Bardic Museum, p. xvi.

31. Manuscript WFM 3021, p.62, at the Welsh Folk Museum.