Episode 62 – Aberfoyle, Perth and Kinross

Once again I find myself having to apologise for the delay to this episode. My excuse this time is that I had my 30th birthday, and my parents came to visit me in Edinburgh. We had a great time, visiting Edinburgh Castle, Aberdour Castle and Falkland Palace. Falkland Palace is very similar to Aberdour, just on a grander, more regal scale. I can highly recommend a visit.

Today we return to Scotland and the village of Aberfoyle, a remote place to the west of Stirling but popular with tourists thanks to the Trossachs National Park to the north west. This is a beautiful, forested area, whose popularity grew in part thanks to one author with a connection to this village. Here also the River Forth comes into being, as the Duchray Water and Avondhu River come together into a single entity. From here it grows and grows as it meanders south east, eventually emerging into the great Firth of Forth by Edinburgh.

Ancient capital

Aberfoyle’s origins date back to 569 when Aedan, Prince of the Forth, was pronounced King of Manau Gododdin – the lands south of the Forth – and made his capital at Eperpuill, as it was then called.

Aedan’s great-grandfather Fergus Mor was the leader of the Scotti, an Irish tribe, who brought them across the Irish Sea into Pictland. Here he founded the kingdom of Dalriada, which includes the western coast of Scotland and some of north-east Ireland. Fergus died in 501 and his son Domangart became king after him. But his reign was not long, and he soon died in 507.

Comgall mac Domangart became king of Dalriada, and meanwhile Gabhran mac Domangart his brother decided to expand their borders. Gabhran married a British princess whose father ruled Manau Gododdin, and whose uncle was king of Strathclyde. Aedan was born from their union in 527. Some suggest he was even born at Aberfoyle.

In 538 Comgall abdicated to enter a monastery, a common thing for kings to do in those days, and was succeeded by his brother Gabhran, since the tradition of the eldest son inheriting was not then in place. Aedan married a Pictish royal princess in 545, extending Dalriada’s connections.

Gabhran died in battle against the Picts 20 years after taking the throne, and his nephew Conall succeeded him. Conall died in 574, and the choice of heir was between two of Gabhran’s sons – Eogan and Aedan. It could have led to war, but in stepped Saint Columba.

Columba is the most well-known of all the Irish saints. He came across to Scotland in 563 and founded the monastery at Iona. From there he travelled all over the country, converting people to Christianity. It’s said that the holy man’s word was always heeded, so when he gave his opinion on the choice of King of Dalriada, he was listened to. He had a dream in which he was told by God to ordain Aedan as king, so he had to abandon his first preference of Eogan. At this time Iona became the Royal Church of the Kingdom of the Scots.

Over his life, Aedan made Dalriada as strong as it had ever been, freeing it from Irish overlordship and sending out expeditions as far as Orkney. Eventually in 606 he abdicated in favour of his son, retiring to a monastery. One of his sons was Artur MacAedan, who is one of many potential inspirations for the legend of King Arthur.

Literary connections

It would be a thousand years before anything else of historical significance happened at Aberfoyle, but since the late 17th Century it has proved an inspiration for several authors.

The appropriately-named Robert Kirk was born at Aberfoyle in 1644, the seventh son of the minister. When he grew up he also became a minister, since despite his family’s relative poverty he was able to study theology at St. Andrew’s University thanks to church sponsorship. Later in life he followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming Aberfoyle’s minister.

Robert had an interest in magic, which wasn’t so uncommon as scientific study was still in its infancy, and wrote a book about magical creatures – The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. He claimed that Doon Hill nearby was the gateway to the fairie world, and was visiting there in 1691 when he mysteriously died. His body was found and he was brought home. Some claimed that the fairies carried him away, but it more likely a heart attack.

Later he appeared as a vision in front of his cousin Graham, and claimed he would appear at Graham’s son’s christening. Graham should throw an iron dagger over him, and that would bring him back. But Graham was too afraid, and did not obey. It’s believed that Robert Kirk’s spirit is still trapped in the tree on Doon Hill, which is also called “Fairy Knowe”. Today the residents leave wishes on white cloth tied to the trees, hoping the faeries will listen.

Sir Walter Scott came to Aberfoyle in the early 19th century, and stayed in the same Old Manse that Robert Kirk had lived in. Here he wrote a poem, The Lady of the Lake, whose descriptions of the Trossachs landscape so inspired its readers that tourism increased fivefold! Aberfoyle was gaining a new role as the ‘Gateway to the Trossachs’.

The village also features in his novel Rob Roy, about the notorious Scottish cattle thief Rob Roy MacGregor. Scott painted him as a noble figure, a Scottish Robin Hood, but the real figure was more like a mafia boss. He extorted the locals, demanding protection money so that their cattle would not be stolen, and had control over all the raiding bands in the area. He was not someone you wanted to cross.

Unfortunately for Rob Roy, he made the mistake of stealing cattle from the Duke of Montrose – not someone he wanted to cross! While he escaped, his family were thrown off the Duke’s lands. Living as an outlaw, he stayed on the outskirts of the destroyed Jacobite army after the 1715 rebellion as long as he could. He was captured in 1717 and was almost deported to Barbados until King George I pardoned him. Perhaps his time in captivity taught him a lesson, as he lived lawfully from then on. But his sons have their own story to tell…

Not only British authors found Aberfoyle inspirational. French author Jules Verne’s novel Les Indes noires (‘the Black Indies’, publishes in English as The Child of the Cavern) tells the tale of the Aberfoyle mining community, and strange happenings connected to the Aberfoyle mine.

The tourism boom initially started by Sir Walter Scott soon brought the railway to Aberfoyle, and later in 1886 “The Duke’s Road” was built here providing a link north to south through the Trossachs.

Aberfoyle today is still a tourist hub, and home to the largest ‘Go Ape’ adventure centre in the UK, hosting the country’s largest zip line. A number of the hotels and restaurants also reference the literary connections in their names. And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can visit the Scottish Woollen Centre, which tells the story of how sheep’s wool is turned into clothing.

Next time we’re leaving Scotland for Wales once again, to the town of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, a small town with many names.


Historical Chronology of the Early Kingdoms of Scotland, Early British Kingdoms, David Nash Ford

Welcome to Aberfoyle, Scottish Accommodation Index

GENERAL SURVEY OF SCOTLAND NORTH OF FORTH, W.J. Watson, History of the Celtic Placenames of Scotland, 1926





Episode 61 – Aberford, West Yorkshire

Apologies for the lack of an episode recently. It’s been a busy time for me, meeting up with a lot of friends I haven’t seen in ages, so I’ve taken a bit longer to get all my research and writing done. Last Thursday we went on a train journey to Pitlochry, and on the way passed the tiny village of Aberargie. Anyway, let’s get on to Aberford.

Welcome to the one ‘aber’ settlement in the United Kingdom that has nothing to do with a river arriving at another body of water. But as the ‘ford’ part of the name suggests it is connected to a river crossing; this is where the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh crosses the Cock Beck. Aberford is considered to be the midpoint between the two capitals, being 200 miles from each. With the construction of the A1 providing a bypass, traffic no longer goes through the village, but it was a defining feature for hundreds of years. The village stretches long and thin along the length of the road, rather than clustering around a central location.

Aberford has two manors nearby – Parlington and Lotherton – which we will look at separately.


The ‘aber’ part of the name hints back to Anglo-Saxon origins, in a similar vein to ‘Abberley’ or ‘Abberton’, yet in the post-Saxon Domesday Book there’s no record of the village though Parlington manor is present. The first mention of Aberford is around 1176 in the Pipe Rolls – early English financial records kept by the government. But a thousand years before this there were people living in the area.

The Great North Road has always been busy. The Romans used it, and had a garrison to the south at Castleford. There might also be a Roman fort beneath Aberford House in the village. A series of banks and ditches – the Aberford Dykes – were built to the north and south. These may have come from the early Roman period, or been added as a defensive Saxon structure.

One of the most significant signs of Saxon habitation is a golden ring found in a nearby field. It has an intricate design on the front, and the inscription inside bears the name ‘Queen AEthelswith’. It belonged to AEthelswith of Mercia, sister of Alfred the Great, as a sign of her royal office. Mercian women had more freedom and power than those of other Saxon kingdoms, so her marriage to King Burgred of Mercia in 853 or 854 would have been a change in lifestyle for her. In 874 Burgred was expelled from his kingdom by the Danes, being replaced by Ceolwulf II whom we met at Aberffraw. Burgred and AEthelswith travelled to Rome where he died soon after. She lived longer and was buried in Pavia, northern Italy, in 888.

The church in the village has Saxon stonework, and the remains of a few Saxon crosses have been found here. But like so many parish churches across Britain it was rebuilt in the 12th Century by the Normans. It was dedicated to the Frankish monk St. Ricarius, who was born in the 6th Century to a pagan family. Welsh missionaries converted him to Christianity, then he became a monk and travelled to England to preach to the Saxons – he’s said to have visited Aberford around 630. Later he returned to France and founded two monasteries. This is the only church dedicated to St. Ricarius in Britain.

For many centuries Aberford was a farming village, focussed on growing wheat. The Cock Beck had two watermills for corn in the 14th Century, and there were also a few windmills around. Some of these still remain, though they have been converted into housing.

Aberford’s position on the Great North Road made it ideally positioned for royal courts as the king made his assizes around the country. It might not have been as exciting a location as the big towns and cities, but even so there are plenty of records showing decisions made here. For instance on 27 November 1300 a number of gentlemen were forced to “acknowledge that they owe to William de Crescy, the younger, 60l.; to be levied, in default of payment, of their lands and chattels in co. York.”

By the 17th Century Aberford was home to a pin-making cottage industry. The focus was on hackle pins, which would be formed into a comb-like instrument to clean wool and hemp. It is around this time that the village began to be formed into its modern shape, in no small part thanks to the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. Now that the two countries shared a ruler the people could trade and travel across the border regularly, and Aberford was an ideal stopping point on the long journey.

The industrial revolution brought with it dramatic improvements in transportation and growth in wealth. A number of grand coaching inns sprang up along the side of the road, most notably the Swan Hotel. These coaching inns are notable for their wide arched entrances, admitting the stagecoaches to the inner courtyard where people and goods could easily be unloaded. Wealthy Georgians families built grand townhouses here, so they wouldn’t have to stay in the inns.

In the 19th Century the newest form of transport – the railway – also arrived. Aberford’s local nobility, the Gascoignes, had several limestone quarries and coal mines, and constructed the railway in 1835 to ship their product from Garforth, a few miles to the south west, to their depot at Aberford. For a time it became a thriving passenger line, but eventually closed in 1924. There’s no railway any more, and the old track is now a walking path.

With the arrival of the car, Aberford doesn’t have the same significance it used to. The journey from London to Edinburgh can easily be made in less than a day, and there’s no more need for a rest stop along the Great North Road. It continues to be recognised for its architecture, which is protected in a conservation area.

Parlington and Lotherton

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Parlington Manor was under the lordship of Earl Edwin of Mercia. Edwin’s brother was Earl of Northumbria, and their brother-in-law was King Harold of England.

1066 was a traumatic year for Britain. The previous king, Edward the Confessor, had died, and there were three claimants to the throne: Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada the King of Norway, and Duke William of Normandy. Harold being the only one in England, he was made king. Abroad, two armies were prepared by the other claimants, determined to have it for themselves.

Harald Hardrada landed first, on England’s north-eastern coast. He met Edwin and his brother in battle at York on 20 September 1066, defeating the Earls. Five days later, Harold’s English army arrived and destroyed the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. The first invasion was defeated.

Harold’s army turned south, marching to meet William of Normandy’s forces at Hastings. Edwin and his brother stayed in the north. After Harold was killed they didn’t support the choice of William as the new king, instead backing the exiled Saxon prince Edgar AEthling. And if not him then either of the pair would make a good option. Edwin plotted rebellion against William, but it soon failed. He sought support from Scotland, but on his way there in 1071 he was betrayed by his own people and killed.

His lands were handed over to Norman lords, and by 1086 Parlington was held by Ilbert de Lacy. Ilbert had been just 21 at the conquest, but his loyalty to William gained him over 150 manors in West Yorkshire alone.

By the 14th Century the manor was owned by Sir Hugh le Despenser the Younger. Hugh’s father, Hugh the Elder, had served Edward I until his death near Abbeytown in July 1307, and then served Edward II.

Edward II’s close companion (and possibly lover) Piers Gaveston was a constant thorn in the side of the barons, and over the next few years he was regularly in and out of exile from England. Hugh the Elder was one of his few supporters. But eventually in 1312 the Earl of Warwick got hold of Piers and had him tried and executed on a hill just outside of Kenilworth. This is where the village of Leek Wootton is located today, and is quite close to where I grew up.

Hugh the Elder now became Edward II’s chief adviser, but was dismissed in 1315. He now focussed his attention on his son’s rise to power, helping him to become Royal Chamberlain in 1318. Hugh the Younger had also gained status through marriage, since his wife was heiress to a great fortune of wealth and land on the Scottish borders. But his royal position began to anger the barons, and they plotted the Despensers’ downfall.

Perhaps Hugh saw the end coming. In April 1321 he granted his lands at Parlington to Sir John de Cromwell and his wife Idonia, on the condition that if they made more than 136 marks per year, the excess would return to Hugh and his heirs. This was to be a commitment over generations.

Then in August 1321 the Hughs were forced into exile. The Elder went abroad, but the Younger stayed around the British naval ports of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, the ‘cinque ports’, taking up piracy.

The next year, the opposing barons were put down and the Hughs returned, but in 1326 a new rebellion was started by Edward II’s own wife Isabella and her ‘companion’ Roger Mortimer. The king fled, the Despensers sticking with him. The Elder was put in charge over Bristol, while the Younger stayed with his king.

Isabella soon forced Bristol’s surrender, and Hugh the Elder was quickly tried and executed. Edward II and Hugh the Younger were captured, and Hugh was held for a month before being hung, drawn and quartered. Thus ended the Despensers.

Parlington’s new owner, John de Cromwell, was a constable of the Tower of London. He remained in parliament until his death in 1335. He and his wife sadly seem not to have had any children, so the manor would have been returned to the crown before new owners were found. Under the feudal system all land actually belonged to the king, and the lords of each manor were merely holding it for him.

In 1545 John Gascoigne purchased Parlington Manor from one Thomas Wentworth. This is confirmed by an alienation license granted in 1546 during the reign of Edward VI. The family had previously lived elsewhere in Yorkshire, but moved their chief manor to Parlington at this time. The family has been closely connected to Aberford ever since.

The reformation had taken place in England just twenty years previously under the rule of Henry VIII. While most English converted, the Gascoignes were one of the few holdouts, and remained Catholic until the 18th Century despite strict penalties. Many of them would take holy orders in Europe, where Catholicism remained strong.

A number of Gascoignes were forced to pay fines for ‘recusancy’ – refusing to follow the protestant religion. It was a legal requirement to attend Church of England services each week, and to take protestant communion three times a year. Poorer families who remained Catholic could not afford the fines of £20 per month for disobeying (£2,000 today), so attended anyway. Only wealthy families like the Gascoignes could be open about their beliefs.

Sir Thomas Gascoigne was head of the family during and after the Civil War, and like most Catholics they were Royalists. This brought further financial burden on the family as they were fined for their support, and had to mortgage their property to cover the cost. Many of these fines were forgiven by Charles II when he was restored to the throne in 1660.

The years following the English republic were troubled, particularly for Catholics. They made up just 1% of the British population, and like minorities throughout history were viewed with suspicion. King Charles himself was suspected to be a closet Catholic thanks to his Catholic wife and residence in Catholic France during his exile. When he became king he tried to fight against the recusancy laws but with some difficulty.

Into this arena stepped one Titus Oates. He claimed that the Jesuit order were orchestrating a ‘Popish Plot’ to assassinate Charles II so that his brother James could take the throne. Over the period of the conspiracy over 100 people would be accused, including Thomas Gascoigne.

At first the plot wasn’t so high on the public agenda. The king himself didn’t buy it, as he recognised discrepancies in the story, but one who did was Sir Edmund Geoffrey Berry, a magistrate. He took note of the evidence and went to look into it. Then… he vanished. A few days later, on 17 October 1678, his body turned up in a ditch on Primrose Hill, strangled and stabbed through with his own sword.

It was the catalyst needed to fire the public up. Jesuits were rounded up and Catholics were banned from London for a radius of 20 miles. Processions were held through the streets burning effigies of the pope.

Many people were put on trial for their supposed part in the plot, including many priests who were respected members of their communities. 23 were executed and 7 more died in prison. Titus Oates even claimed that the queen was in on the plot, and had asked her physician to poison her husband. When the physician went on trial the judge had to tread very carefully to get him off without challenging the veracity of the plot.

But by now the plot was starting to fall apart. As Titus brought in more informers to put forward ‘evidence’ discrepancies began to appear. And of course the supposed threat of assassination to the king was never realised. Thomas Gascoigne himself was put to trial in 1680 but was acquitted, in part thanks to his age.

Titus Oates was arrested in 1784 and convicted of perjury. He was fined a gigantic £100,000 and imprisoned. Two later trials saw him put in the pillory and whipped through the streets. When William III came to the throne he pardoned Titus and gave him a small pension, and he lived into the 1720s.

As for Thomas Gascoigne, his family continued to live at Parlington Hall until 1905, when they moved to Lotherton Hall on the other side of Aberford. Both manors were used by the military during World War I, then Parlington was abandoned and fell into ruin. Later some of the buildings were demolished.

A branch of the Gascoignes first began to live at Lotherton Hall in 1825. In 1893 Richard Gascoigne took ownership after his aunt died, and once his father Frederick died in 1905 it was he who moved their residence away from Parlington.

His wife Gwendolyn took full advantage, and designed beautiful gardens surrounding the property. It was used as a military hospital during World War I, and in 1968 was given by Sir Alvery Gascoigne and his wife to the City of Leeds.

Following his service during World War I, Sir Alvery became a diplomat, eventually being appointed first secretary in the Foreign Office in 1933. Then World War II arrived, and he was posted to Tangier in Morocco. Following the war he was the British Political Representative in Japan until 1951, and then stationed for a time in Moscow.

Sadly he didn’t live much longer after his donation of Lotherton Hall, and died in 1970 at the age of 86.

Next week we’ll be back in Scotland, in Aberfoyle, for more British history.


Aberford Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan (May 2011), Leeds Council

Aethelswith Ring, British Museum Collection Online

Place: Parlington, Domesday Online

Ilbert de Lacy, Elizabeth Ashworth

‘Close Rolls, Edward II: April 1321’, in Calendar of Close Rolls, Edward II: Volume 3, 1318-1323, ed. H C Maxwell Lyte (London, 1895), pp. 365-370. British History Online (£)

Parlington Hall, Brian Hull

GASCOIGNE, John II (by 1537-1602), of Parlington, Yorks, The House of Commons, 1509-1558, Volume 1, Stanley Thomas Bindoff, Boydell and Brewer, 1982

Titus Oates and his ‘Popish Plot’, In Our Time, BBC Radio 4

Things to do and see, Lotherton Hall, Leeds Council


Episode 60 – Aberffraw, Anglesey – Part 2

Around the 9th Century there was something big going on in North West Europe. The king of the Franks, Charles, died in 814. For the last fourteen years of his life he was Holy Roman Emperor. After his death he would be known as Charles the Great, Charlemagne.

Towards the end of the century a king would arise in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, whose rule so inspired his people that he would become known as Alfred the Great.

And in Gwynedd in 844 Merfyn Frych died and was succeeded by his 24-year-old son Rhodri. Before his time Gwynedd was a minor kingdom whose greatest fame came as an ally to Mercia in Northumbria. But in his lifetime he would bring his land to greatness, and his people would call him Rhodri the Great, Rhodri Mawr.


In 836 the Viking invaders had taken the Isle of Man. All across the British Isles the coasts were being ravaged as the ‘great heathen army’ set their sights on these islands’ treasures. Anglesey was hit in 854, the seafaring Danes finding it easy to access the island. They were called by the Welsh ‘black gentiles’.

Perhaps it was greed for land, or perhaps Rhodri saw a need for the Welsh to be united in face of this threat. In 855 he took his chance on the death of his uncle Cyngen ap Cadell, king of Powys, and seized the throne.

Cyngen had been king of Powys for a long time. During his lifetime he’d seen a rift between the Catholic and Celtic churches over the dating of Easter healed, and now he was making the first pilgrimage to Rome of any Welsh king since that time. It was while away in Rome that he died. One of his three sons should have inherited the throne of Powys. Instead Rhodri took it, annexing the kingdom to become part of Gwynedd.

Their strengthened forces took the battle to the Vikings, and Rhodri himself killed their leader Gorm in battle in 856. After this there were no attacks on North Wales for 20 years – maybe he was just too big a threat for them, and the Saxons were an easier target. So Gwynedd had peace from the Vikings.

It was around 870 or 871 that Rhodri’s brother-in-law Gwgon, king of Ceredigion, drowned. Gwgon had no heir, so Rhodri was able to push for his son Cadell to be made king of Ceredigion, with himself as steward. Thus Rhodri became sovereign over a large swathe of Wales with only the south free from his rule.

That same year the Vikings returned, but Rhodri defeated them in two decisive battles at Anglesey and a place called ‘Manegid’.

Saxon Trouble

It was during this century that the great heathen army decided they liked Britain enough that they want to do more than raiding. Instead, they began conquering the land and settling here. Soon they were in control of many east British kingdoms. Some of the Saxons fought back. Others saw where their bread was buttered, and made alliances to protect themselves.

One of these was King Ceolwulf II of Mercia, who had formed a treaty with the Danish king Guthrum. Mercia was now free from attack, while their rival Wessex was kept busy. Mercia could now focus their attention on their rivals to the west and crossed the border into Rhodri’s lands.

It was either in 873 or 877 – the Welsh Annals contradict each other over the dates – that Ceolwulf invaded Wales. Rhodri and his brother Gwriad led the forces against the Saxons and were slain. Gwynedd may well have been forced to submit to Mercia and become one of their sub-kingdoms.

Rhodri’s sons Anarawd, Cadell and Merfyn inherited the thrones of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Powys respectively under a system called gavelkind where the inheritance was split between all heirs. Cadell wasn’t satisfied with his portion and killed Merfyn to gain Powys’s throne for himself as well. But Anarawd was the most notable of the sons of Rhodri. It is at this time that his dynasty is founded and called the ‘House of Aberffraw’.

In 880 Alfred also signed a treaty with Guthrum, though this was in Wessex’s favour as they had been getting the advantage of the Danes. Under the terms of the treaty Mercia was divided in two, half Saxon and half Dane. It is also around this time that Ceolwulf disappears as king of Mercia, to be replaced by AEthelred. Certainly it was AEthelred who, in 881, led the Mercians back into Gwynedd for further battle either as king or war leader, perhaps to suppress a rebellion. This time Anarawd won out, asserting his kingdom’s independence in a great victory that was regarded as ‘God’s vengeance for Rhodri’.

I’m sure there are some of you out there asking what right Alfred had to divide Mercia when it wasn’t his land. We know that AEthelred submitted to Alfred some time at the end of the 870s or during the 880s, and it’s possible that this division was taken after Mercia became a sub-kingdom of Wessex. But if that’s the case then Mercia’s attack on Gwynedd was also done under Alfred’s instruction. Not exactly something he’d want to shout about, especially to his Welsh biographer. Perhaps that’s why the dates are so unclear.

In this decade the island of Great Britain had three great powers outside of Scotland – the Danes, the Saxons and the Welsh. Anarawd knew that both the Saxons and Danes would be dangerous foes, so he formed an alliance with the Northumbrian Danes to reduce the threat to Gwynedd. Only a few small, independent kingdoms remained in the south of Wales, and all of them faced regular attacks from Gwynedd and Mercia.

The alliance with Northumbria didn’t work out for Anarawd, and by 893 he’d shifted to Wessex. Alfred received him with honour and was appointed as his godfather. Gwynedd became a sub-kingdom on a level with Mercia. Anarawd used this to his advantage and turned on his brother Cadell in Ceredigion.

Gwynedd in turmoil

Anarawd’s son Idwal Foel succeeded him as ruler of Gwynedd in 916. Cadell’s son Hywel Dda succeeded him as ruler of Ceredigion, and also the south western kingdom of Dyfed. He would combine these into the greater kingdom of Deheubarth. Idwal led a rebellious life against his overlords and was eventually killed in 942 and his sons expelled. Hywel was placed on Gwynedd’s throne.

Hywel ruled over almost all of Wales. Like his ancestor Rhodri he was considered a great king, and his name ‘Hywel Dda’ means ‘Hywel the Good’. Following his succession in Gwynedd he gathered together six representatives of each commote – that is, a smaller division of land than the cantref (or hundred) – and held a great conference in Dyfed, which he seems to have regarded as his home base.

Together they devised the ‘Laws of Hywel the Good’ in three parts – the law of the daily court, law of the land, and the customs of each land. These were made into three copies, one for the court at Dynevor in Dyfed, one for his daily court as he travelled around the country, and one for the court at Aberffraw. So wherever he went there would always be a copy of the law.

Hywel’s reign marks one of the few times that Wales has been a united independent country. His impact helped establish the idea of a single country of Wales, rather than many different kingdoms. But it was not to last, as after his death, the principle of gavelkind saw these lands divided once again.

Idwal’s elder sons Iago and Ieuaf were restored as joint monarchs of Gwynedd, but they immediately fell into civil war. Iago defeated his brother in 969, and appears in 973 at the court of King Edgar of England in Chester, showing Gwynedd was still considered a sub-kingdom of England.

Ieuaf’s son Hywel came back against his uncle, imprisoning him in 979 and making himself king of Gwynedd. He died shortly afterwards in 985, and though his brother Cadwallon succeeded him, he then died the next year. This was the end of the lines of Iago and Ieuaf, so the inheritance of Gwynedd went to Idwal’s younger son Meurig.

Continuing over the next century the House of Aberffraw held a tenuous grasp on the throne of Gwynedd. From time to time they would achieve the throne, but soon some usurper would take over, kill the previous incumbent, and rule themselves. It seems incredible that the dynasty could survive through this, but somehow it managed. When each usurper died, Aberffraw would be restored until the next time.

So it continued to the time of Cynan ap Iago. Cynan’s father had managed to rule Gwynedd for six years, from 1033 to 1039, until he was murdered by his own men and Gruffydd ap Llywelyn took the throne. Cynan fled to Ireland to live with the Danes of Dublin, marrying into their royal line. He never managed to take back the throne, though he tried twice, and died in exile around 1060.

Cynan’s son was born around 1055, so he did not know his father well. It’s said that his mother told him his legacy, and in 1075 he crossed the Irish Sea to regain his patrimony. Thus began the reign of Gruffydd ap Cynan, and at last the House of Aberffraw would have a stable rule.

This is a name we have encountered numerous times during our alphabetical adventure around Britain. Some of the details of Gruffydd and his descendants are familiar to us, particularly the alliances and battles between Gwynedd and her southern neighbour Deheubarth led by Rhys ap Tewdwr. And the kingdom will eventually become the last man standing in the fight for freedom against the Normans, until Llywelyn the Last meets his end at Aberedw. We have already covered this in some detail, and no doubt will revisit these events again, so I won’t be going any further this episode.

Following the end of Gwynedd, the palace at Aberffraw fell into ruins. Today the village is just a shadow of its former self, with just a few hundred residents where once was royalty and splendour.

The church in the sea

West of Aberffraw, on an island in the sea reachable only at low tide via a causeway, is St. Cwyfan’s Church. 1400 years ago when it was constructed it was on the mainland, and since then the slow erosion of the sea has worn away the land around it.

St. Cwyfan – or Kevin – was born in 498 in Ireland. He trained as a monk, and after his ordination moved to the remote valley of Glendalough in County Wicklow, south east Ireland, where he lived as a hermit in a cave. This was a common path to take, and those who isolated themselves were seen as particularly holy.

Though Kevin would not be isolated for long. Visitors came from all around to learn from him, and his particular disciples built a small settlement by the nearby lake. Glendalough Abbey would eventually grow into a renowned seminary where numerous saints and scholars trained.

Later in life Kevin travelled, perhaps even to Aberffraw where stories say he settled and taught the native Britons about Christianity, beginning a church for them to be educated in. That early building would have been made of wattle and daub – not the most durable materials for a church by the sea, but they were readily accessible.

But for the majority of his life Kevin lived in Glendalough, and he did not stay away for long before returning, remaining in the abbey until his death in 618, aged 120. Today he is known as the patron saint of blackbirds.

In the 12th century the Normans underwent a massive program of rebuilding and reconsecrating churches, and St. Cwyfan’s was completely redone in stone. This is also the time when it was first named after the saint.

The island of Cribiniau, on which the church sits, remained a peninsula of the mainland into the 17th Century. Towards the end of that century the construction of the causeway began, as the sea finally came between the church and the people. Time and tide pay no heed to church services, and sometimes these had to be held at a house on the mainland instead.

In 1766 Dr. Thomas Bowles was appointed to St. Cwyfan’s as parish priest of Trefdraeth by the Diocese of Bangor. Unfortunately they failed to take into account that Dr. Bowles spoke no Welsh, and just a handful of his congregation spoke any English. A complaint was raised, and eventually heard in the 1773 ecclesiastical court. The judge ruled that the appointment had been an error, and Welsh-speaking parishes should have Welsh-speaking priests, but seeing as he was already appointed there he should remain until the end of his term. It was a mixed blessing for the people that he would die later that year, allowing them to have a more appropriate priest as replacement.

By the 19th Century the church was in ruins, and the graveyard was starting to collapse into the sea. Local architect Harold Hughes was concerned for the building and raised money towards its restoration, including constructing a protective seawall around it, in 1893. Further restoration took place in 2006.


On regular occasions throughout the year the sound of engines can be heard filling the air to the south west of Aberffraw. This is the Anglesey Circuit, which regularly hosts racing events and has also been used by Channel Five’s motoring program Fifth Gear for their ‘shoot outs’, pitting similar vehicles against each other in a race.


So far all of our ‘Aber’ towns have been in the Celtic/Pictish areas of Wales and Scotland. But next week we’re visiting England. What’s up with that?! Find out as we take a trip to Aberford, near Leeds.


Rhodri Mawr, English Monarchs [even though he’s Welsh…]

ANARAWD ap RHODRI (d. 916 ), prince ., Sir John Edward Lloyd, D.Litt., F.B.A., F.S.A. (1861-1947), Bangor, 1959, Dictionary of Welsh Biography

The Sons of Rhodri and Aethelred’s Beautiful Hair, The British History Podcast Episode 234, Jamie Jeffers, 3 March 2017

HYWEL DDA ( Hywel the Good ) (d. 950 ), king and legislator ., Professor Stephen Joseph Williams, D.Litt., (1896-1992), Swansea, 1959, Dictionary of Welsh Biography

CYNAN ap IAGO (d. 1060? ), exiled prince , Sir John Edward Lloyd, D.Litt., F.B.A., F.S.A. (1861-1947), Bangor, 1959, Dictionary of Welsh Biography

Llangwyfan – St Cwyfan’s Church, Warren Kovach, Anglesey History

ST CWYFAN CHURCH IN THE SEA, William Jones, Anglesey Hidden Gem

Episode 60 – Aberffraw, Isle of Anglesey – Part 1

Good time of day faithful readers, how are you doing? This weekend I’m visiting Carlisle with my wonderful fiancé, so I’ve been working hard to get this blog done on time while keeping it up to my usual standards.

While it’s Carlisle in the real world, we’re on the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Mon) in the blog world. This island is the heartland of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd, whose origins date back to the fifth century, and Aberffraw was its capital. This island achieved such prominence due to its natural defence in the Menai Strait that separates it from the mainland. I have chosen to use Anglesey rather than Ynys Mon simply because it is most commonly known by this name throughout the world.

But before we reach the royal line of Gwynedd, lets go even further back in time, to the early British settlers who set aside their hunter-gatherer existence for a settled farming life. Anglesey has numerous neolithic monuments, many of them burial tombs that show hints of the people’s lives and beliefs.

One of these tombs is north-west of the village. It’s called ‘Barclodiad y Gawres’, the ‘giantess’s apronful’, overlooking the Irish Sea. A mound of grassy earth covers the large burial site, only accessible through a 7m long passageway on the north side. The passageway and cross-shaped centre are lined by several large stones, which hold up the earth overhead. They are etched with abstract shapes – curves, spirals and zig-zags – which would have taken hundreds of hours of dedicated work to complete.

The human remains found inside show signs of cremation, a common Neolithic practice. There’s also signs of a fire on which a ‘magic potion’ of eel, frog, toad and other animals was thrown. Was this some kind of sacred ritual?

Over the millennia stories have built up around these ancient stones, as those who lived nearby asked themselves where they could have come from, not believing any person could create such a thing. Legends tell of a giant couple who decided to make Anglesey their home. They carried several large stones with them that they would build their house from. The man carried two large stones for the entrance, while the woman carried smaller stones in her apron.

They’d been walking for a long time, and were getting tired. Spotting a cobbler coming the other way, they asked how much further they had to go. He lied and said it was still a long distance. Frustrated, the giantess dumped her burden of rocks on the ground. And there they remain to this day.

The House of Aberffraw

For much of the early history of the kings of Gwynedd we know very little. Where we know more the stories are legendary, or come from outside sources where Gwynedd was interacting with the other kingdoms. Some of the stories were handed down for many generations before they were written down, and have changed in the telling. While I’m presenting the stories here as if they were factual, you should take them with a pinch of salt.

The ancestor of the first kings of Gwynedd was Cunedda, a chieftain of north Britain around 380 CE. His mother was descended from Welsh kings, while his father’s family may have come to the island with the Romans and served north of Hadrian’s Wall.

It was at this time that the Scotti of Ireland invaded north Wales, and the Welsh called on Cunedda to rescue them. He heeded the call, and “with great slaughter they drove out from those regions the Scotti who never returned again to inhabit them.” Anglesey, the Llyn Peninsula and a few other small areas remained in Irish hands. As for Cunedda, he was made king over much of Wales.

Cunedda had nine sons, though the firstborn died in his homeland and never came to Wales with his father. The other eight were Meirion, Ysfael, Rhufon, Dunod, Ceredig, Afloeg, Einion Yrth, Dogfael and Edern. These children became the ancestors of many of the Welsh royal lineages, and each received a portion of their father’s Welsh lands as an inheritance.

Gwynedd’s royal line descended from Einion Yrth. His eldest son Cadwallon Lawhir (or ‘long hand’) was the first Welsh-born of the kings. His name comes from his very long arms; apparently he could “reach a stone from the ground to kill a raven, without bending his back, because his arm was as long as his side to the ground.”

Cadwallon joined forces with his cousins to finally expel the Irish from all their Welsh lands, most notably their power base in Anglesey. The effort was completed by 517, culminating in the death of the Irish leader as he attempted to retreat.

Soon Gwynedd’s Royal Court had been moved to Aberffraw, where it would remain until the 13th Century when Llywelyn the Last was killed by the English at Aberedw.


Cadwallon’s son Maelgwn was born in 480. He murdered his uncle Owain to ensure he got Gwynedd’s crown, an act which gained him much disapproval from Gildas, a Welsh monk who sent many furious letters to the Welsh kings trying to get them to be more Christian. On the other hand, Gildas also complimented him with the honorific ‘Dragon of the Isle’, referring to Anglesey.

After his succession as king, Maelgwn gathered all the kings of north Wales together to persuade them he should be their over-king. He held a competition – everyone would sit on chairs along the shore, and whoever stayed longest before the coming high tide would be high king. They all sat, and one-by-one all the other kings of Wales had to escape. But Maelgwyn had coated his chair with waxed bird wings, and when the high tide came his chair floated. Thus Maelgwn won the challenge and became high king.

Maelgwn seems to have been quite a trickster, who would make gains for himself through deception and others’ misfortune. He’d heard that the Bishop of Llanbadarn had a huge pile of gold, and decided he wanted it for himself. He sent messengers to the bishop asking him to take care of some of the royal treasury for a while. When they came back a few months later to retrieve the treasure, they found only piles of stones and moss.

As you might have guessed, it was Maelgwn who had planted the false treasure. If the bishop was found guilty, he could claim that it was his own wealth he was retrieving and thus increase his wealth by deceitful means. So the bishop was brought to trial.

But this was no trial by jury, with evidence and eyewitness statements. This was a trial by ordeal, where both parties would plunge their arms into boiling water, giving themselves terrible burns. Whichever recovered faster would be considered innocent. When the bishop’s arms were examined they had been completely healed, while his accusers were still scarred. Maelgwn was forced to admit his plot.

Maelgwn’s first wife was Princess Nesta of the Southern Pennines. He gave her a beautiful golden ring worn by all the queens of Gwynedd, but she lost it while bathing on the Elwy. She knew Maelgwn would be unhappy, so in a panic, she went to Bishop Asaph to ask what she should do. He invited the couple to dinner that evening, and explained what had happened to the ring. Maelgwn was furious at his wife, accusing her of giving it to an impoverished lover. But then the bishop cut open the fish they were to eat for dinner and there was the ring inside!

It is certainly an interesting comment on Maelgwn’s character that he is always losing out to holy men.

Many kings in those days chose to end their days by abdicating their thrones and going to live in a monastery. Maelgwn tried to do this, but it wasn’t in his nature. Soon he was back in the secular world, where he murdered his second wife and nephew, then married his nephew’s widow!

Around 549 a terrible plague was sweeping through the country. He tried to flee from it but was too late. Despite protestations and prayers to God he died a few days later, and was succeeded by his illegitimate son Rhun Hir.

His legitimate daughter, Eurgain, challenged this position. Her husband Elidyr Mwynfawr of Strathclyde brought war to Gwynedd, sailing his armies down the Menai Straits to land near Caernarfon. But Gwynedd supported Rhun and defeated the army from the north. A second rebellion from Elidyr’s cousin was also defeated a few years later. Rhun brought his own army back to the north of Britain to set his half brother on the Pictish throne.

We don’t know much about Rhun’s successors – his son Beli, grandson Iago and great-grandson Cadfan. Cadfan is notable for his support of St. Beuno, a Welsh missionary who is said to have raised seven people from the dead, and there’s a church dedicated to him not far from Aberffraw. Cadfan is buried at Llangadwaladr, a village to the north west of the capital.


When the Anglo Saxons took over south Britain at the end of the 5th Century, the culture underwent great change. For a time many of the Saxon kingdoms were pagan, though they later converted to Christianity. The Mercian king Penda was the last hold out against this change, but that didn’t stop Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd from forming an alliance with him.

He’d become king after his father’s death in 613, coinciding with the Battle of Chester when the kingdom of Northumbria was pushing its territorial boundaries. Edwin, king of Northumbria, campaigned across the island as far south as Wessex and as far west as Anglesey. In 629 he forced Cadwallon out of Anglesey, and he had to seek shelter in Ireland.

Then Cadwallon reached out to Penda and they fought back together against Edwin, defeating him in 630. The campaign continued until in 633 they had killed Edwin and his son Osfrith at Hatfield Chase in South Yorkshire. Northumbria was severely weakened.

Enfrith of Bernicia – one of Northumbria’s sub-kingdoms – had been living in Pictland, outside of Saxon control. He tried to negotiate a peace with Cadwallon and Penda, but they wouldn’t listen and Cadwallon killed Enfrith. Now Enfrith’s half-brother Oswald also came south. They met in battle and Cadwallon was slain.

Northumbrian scribe and holy man Bede had nothing good to say about the Welsh king.

…though he bore the name and professed himself a Christian, was so barbarous in his disposition and behaviour, that he neither spared the female sex, nor the innocent age of children, but with savage cruelty put them to tormenting deaths, ravaging all their country for a long time, and resolving to cut off all the race of the English within the borders of Britain.

Well, Bede might have been a bit biased. Other Saxon kingdoms seem to have appreciated being liberated from Northumbrian conquest, and a later king of Wessex was named after Cadwallon.

His death in 634 caused a power vacuum in Gwynedd. His son Cadwaladr was just one year old, and unable to rule. Enter Cadfael Cadomedd. His origins are unknown, but he secured his position quickly. He would reign for thirty years over Gwynedd, continuing the alliance with Penda and helping to defeat Oswald.

Oswald’s son Oswiu had succeeded him as king of Northumbria, and continued the war. In 655 the two sides met in battle at the Winwaed. On the one side, Oswiu; on the other, Penda and his allies. But Penda’s army was weakened by desertions, and even Gwynedd left the night before the battle began. The tide was turned in Northumbria’s favour and Penda was slain, marking the end of paganism in Saxon Britain as his son and heir Peada was Christian. Penda had been a great and powerful king, and his loss allowed the Northumbrians to advance once more.

As for Gwynedd, the reign of Cadfael saw famine, plague and civil war across the kingdom. Many supported Cadwaladr’s right to be king despite his age. He was kept safe until the time came when Cadfael died, probably thanks to one of the plagues.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, the British scribe, relates the tradition that he was kept safe in Brittany under the hospitality of Alain Hir. The Welsh and Bretons would have spoken the same language in those days, so this would make sense. After Cadfael’s death Cadwaladr and his son Ifwr returned to Gwynedd to secure the throne.

Like Maelgwn, he spent his final years in a monastery. Unlike Maelgwn, he kept it up. He died in November 682 while on pilgrimage to Rome, and his body returned to Wales for burial. His son succeeded him.

It wasn’t many generations before history repeated itself. Cadwaladr’s grandson Rhodri was killed in 754 when Caradog Meirion staged a coup, seizing the throne of Gwynedd. Rhodri’s son Cynan was fourteen, but like Cadwaladr had to keep his head down.

Caradog reigned a long time, during which Gwynedd suffered under regular Mercian attacks, their former ally expanding their borders again. He was defeated and killed by Coenwulf of Mercia in 798, in Snowdonia.

Cynan was now sixty, and immediately assumed his place as king of Gwynedd by descent from Rhodri. But many in Gwynedd had come to accept Caradog’s place as their king, and believed his thirteen-year-old son Hywel should have the throne. Because of his age, the simmering tension didn’t really break out until 813. And then Gwynedd was in civil war.

At first Cynan was winning, then Hywel got the upper hand and drove him out of Anglesey. Cynan’s daughter Essylt had married the king of the Isle of Man, so that was where he fled. He attempted a fightback two years later and was killed.

It seemed this would be the end of the line of Cunedda. Hywel might have come from an usurping line, but with all Cynan’s descendants on the Isle of Man he just needed to have heirs of his own to ensure his dynasty would succeed. He ruled Gwynedd peacefully for nine years, but failed in that one task. When he died in 825 Gwynedd looked to see who would be her next ruler.

King Merfyn Frych of Man was the son of Queen Essylt. He’d already inherited his father’s throne and now he crossed the Irish Sea to take Gwynedd, becoming joint ruler of both kingdoms. He chose to reign from Anglesey, but this left the Isle of Man open to invasion from a new threat – the Vikings. In 836 the island was lost, never to be recovered, and Merfyn was King of Gwynedd only. In 844 he died, and his son Rhodri Mawr succeeded him.

Thus ends the first part of the history of Gwynedd. The kingdom has stood for 400 years, surviving invasions, civil war, and plague. Next week we’ll see how it continued to grow, and then became the last holdout against the Normans.

But that’s not all, because we’ll also visit one of Anglesey’s most iconic churches, St. Cwyfan’s, “the church in the sea”, before we return to the 21st Century for some high-speed action. See you next week!


Barclodiad y Gawres: The Original “Awesome”, Anglesey Heritage

The early Kingdom and Sub Kingdoms of Gwynedd 450 – 950, The History of Wales

Cunedda Wledig, King of North Wales, Early British Kingdoms

Cadwallon Lawhir, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Rhun Hir, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Cadfael Cadomedd, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

St. Cadwaladr Fendigaid,King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Caradog, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Hywel Farf-Fehinog, King of Gwynedd, Early British Kingdoms

Merfyn Frych, King of Gwynedd & Ynys Manaw, Early British Kingdoms


Episode 59 – Aberfeldy, Perth and Kinross

We’ve been hit by a huge snowstorm this week in the UK, closing my work’s office and giving me plenty of time at home to work on this blog post. It’s been a while since we had snow this bad, stopping buses and trains from running. Although I’ve been enjoying the change of pace, it’s been driving me stir-crazy, and it will be good to have a longer period out of the house once it starts melting.

We’re taking a break from Wales to visit the Perthshire town of Aberfeldy. We’re right on the edge of the Highlands here, and as the name might suggest it’s where two rivers meet – the Moness Burn joining the River Tay. The Moness used to be known as the ‘Pheallaidh’ (or ‘Feldy’) Burn, which is why this isn’t Abermoness we’re talking about.

This remote location is outstandingly beautiful, so much that it inspired Scots poet Robert Burns:

Now Simmer blinks on flowery braes,
And o’er the crystal streamlets plays;
Come let us spend the lightsome days,
In the birks of Aberfeldy.

The town has embraced the poem so much that the former cinema here is called the ‘Birks’, and there’s a circular walk along the burn called the ‘Birks of Aberfeldy’, passing through the birks – that is, the birch trees. It leads up to the top of Moness Gorge, where a waterfall makes its way down nearly 400 metres in three sections. Its unique botanic life has helped declare it a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

While Aberfeldy itself is a recent settlement, just a few miles downriver there are 4,000 year old human dwellings. These are ‘crannogs’, huts built on stilts over the water of Loch Tay. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a crannog village with eighteen huts, and some of these have been reconstructed to give visitors a taste of ancient human life.

Aberfeldy’s start, meanwhile, came as a result of the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th Century. The first rebellion in 1715 had caused great concern to the British government, and with no desire to see history repeat itself began a plan of pacification around the Highlands.

The man appointed to lead this plan was General George Wade, who had made his career in the army since the age of seventeen. His early postings in Europe saw him rise up the ranks, and by 1710 he’d become a Major General. This was in the War of Spanish Succession, following the death of the last Hapsburg Emperor, where many of the countries of the Spanish Empire seized the opportunity to rebel and find independence. Britain supported these countries, most notably the Netherlands, and joined in the battle. It was during this conflict that Gibraltar became British, and modern Europe began to take shape.

Soon after the British Army returned home from the war, the Jacobites rose up. General Wade helped to counter a number of plots, and arrested Abbots Ripton’s own Charles Caesar alongside the Swedish ambassador, thus foiling the Swedish conspiracy to help the Jacobites.

In 1722 he became MP for Bath, and then in 1724 was made Commander in Chief for North Britain (that is, Scotland). The general was to make a full inspection of the Highlands, then provide recommendations as to how the pacification would work. Part of his strategy included a grand construction campaign, providing new infrastructure such as barracks, roads and bridges to allow the army to easily navigate this treacherous landscape.

Over 250 miles of road were built across Scotland, and one of these would cross the River Tay at Aberfeldy. General Wade seems to have particularly liked this location, as he commissioned architect William Adam to design the bridge here. The Tay Bridge at Aberfeldy cost £4,000, and would be the single most expensive construction on the network. It would eventually be finished in 1734. This was the beginning of the town.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the plan of pacification was not a success. The Jacobites rebelled once more in 1745, and General Wade was sent against them. British hopes were so high that the new national anthem even added a verse calling him out by name, of how he would ‘like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush’. Needless to say, we don’t sing that bit any more.

And that may be just as well, since he missed the Jacobite army altogether. Misreading their intentions, he was in the wrong place to intercept them, leaving a wide-open path to London. He was removed from his position and replaced by the Duke of Cumberland, who pushed the rebels back to Scotland and defeat them at Culloden Moor. George Wade died in 1748, leaving a substantial fortune. Some of this was used to construct a memorial to him at Westminster Abbey.

Roads, bridges and barracks were good for getting people around, but what the British really needed was local support. And there were plenty of Highlanders loyal to the Hanoverian crown who were happy to help. Dressed in dark tartan, they were to keep an eye on the rebels. Thus they gained the name the ‘Black Watch’. In 1739 they were officially formed into a foot regiment, “the men to be natives of that country, and none other to be taken”. Their first regimental parade took place at Aberfeldy.

The Black Watch have long outlasted the purpose for which they were originally created, and are still a key part of the British Armed Forces to this day. Indeed, in 1887 a memorial was dedicated to them at Aberfeldy. Young men join the Black Watch inspired by their name and history, amongst their number my fiance’s best friend Scott who was killed while serving in the Black Watch in Iraq.

Moness House is one of the older buildings in the area. Constructed in 1758 as a hunting lodge, it was bought in 1787 by the Earl of Breadalbane and Holland. Breadalbane is the name of the local Perthshire area, and Holland is a region of Lincolnshire, England, not the Netherlands. I don’t believe the Earls actually owned any English land, the title being one of inheritance rather than fact.

John Campbell was just nineteen when he inherited his Earldom in 1782. While English Earls automatically had a seat in the House of Lords, this wasn’t the case in Scotland. Instead the Scottish lords elected sixteen peers between them, and in 1784 he was given that opportunity. He must have been a man of science as well as politics, because he was appointed to the Royal Society in the same year.

In 1793 John raised up a fencible regiment – that is, a defensive regiment to protect Britain against invasion, freeing up regular army regiments for offensive work. Fencible regiments were also seen in British colonies, for instance during the American War of Independence. The 2,300 men of the Breadalbane Fencibles – most of them locals – saw service in Ireland from 1795 to 1802 under John’s leadership, which coincided with the Irish rebellion led by Wolfe Tone. More on that some other time. In 1799 they presented him with a ceremonial sword, inscribed “1799 Presented by the Non Commissioned Officers and Private Soldiers of the 2d Batt 4th Fen.le Infy to their Col. the Earl of Breadal-bane As A Testimony of their Esteem for his Person and Respect for his Noble liberal and Soldierlike conduct while serving with them in Ireland.”

He rose up the ranks both militarily and in nobility. In 1806 he was created Baron Breadalbane of Taymouth Castle, granting him a seat in the House of Lords of his own accord. In 1831 he was made Marquess of Breadalbane, and died at Taymouth Castle three years later.

Moness House remained with the family until 1921, and today it is a four star hotel.

Aberfeldy doesn’t have a long history, and there haven’t been many events of significance here yet, but there’s a few interesting places that are worth a visit.

Aberfeldy Water Mill The original mill was built on the Moness Burn in 1740, by the Second Earl of Breadalbane John Campbell. It was sold on to private ownership in 1771, and rebuilt in 1825 – the structure that still stands today. Its main purpose was grinding oats into oatmeal.

In the 1980s ownership changed hands. It underwent restoration, being rebuilt as a heritage site, and the wheel was converted to supply hydro electric power. There is now an award-winning bookshop here.

The Parish Church As we’ve previously discovered, the Church of Scotland underwent a split in 1843 over the right of the church to appoint their own ministers, rather than landowners. Here in Aberfeldy there was a sizeable population who joined the Free Church of Scotland, and by November 1843 had laid the foundation stone for the first purpose-build Free Church building in the country. Interestingly it was Lord Breadalbane who laid the stone, showing that not all those with the state right to appoint ministers believed they should have it. Aberfeldy Free Church would more recently reconcile its differences with the Church of Scotland, and no longer exists as a separate entity in the town.

Dewar’s Distillery Back when we visited Aberdalgie we mentioned the Dewar family, of whisky fame, who became Lairds of Dupplin in 1911. But it was here at Aberfeldy that they began their journey in 1898. The distillery here has been operational for 120 years, and you can still visit today.

Aberfeldy Around the World

Though a young town, Aberfeldy is a name that has been transported around the world to a dockside area of London, and the state of Victoria in Australia.

Aberfeldy Village This is a recently-regenerated area of Tower Hamlets providing homes for sale and rent, and plenty of green space. Aberfeldy Street – the centre of the regeneration after which the new estate is named – led to the East India Docks. These docks, rather unsurprisingly, were set up to handle trade to the ‘East Indies’, that is the British colonies around India and South East Asia. Sadly I haven’t been able to find the reason for the street name.

Aberfeldie, Melbourne, Victoria This is a suburb of Melbourne, the name coming from one of its first residents, Scotsman James Robertson. He had been born in Aberfeldy, and named his new house after his home town. After his house was sold in 1888, the name became extended to represent the whole area. It is most notable for its Polish Catholic Church, which was consecrated in 1973 by the future Pope John Paul II.

Aberfeldy, Victoria Gold had been found in the remote regions of Victoria State in the second half of the 19th Century, and in 1871 Mount Lookout was founded. Later renamed Aberfeldy, it would have 500 residents at its peak. The river running through the village was also named Aberfeldy, though the native name for it is ‘Nambruc’. After the gold rush the population dwindled away, and today there is only one permanent resident.

Next week we return to Wales, to the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd – Aberffraw on the Isle of Anglesey. Needless to say, it’s going to be a long one.


The Birks of Aberfeldy, Robert Burns

The Birks of Aberfeldy Walk, Explore Pitlochry.

George Wade: Biography, Undiscovered Scotland

The Black Watch Monument, Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire Tourism

Moness Resort: Hotel Review, Undiscovered Scotland

Fencibles Scots army sword to be auctioned, Frank Urquhart, The Scotsman, 16 October 2013

Moness Resort, Moness Group Ltd.

Aberfeldy Water Mill, David Ross, Britain Express

Aberfeldy Distillery, Dewars

Episode 58 – Aberfan, Merthyr Tydfil

Apologies for the lateness of today’s blog post. Although it’s short, it’s been one of the hardest I’ve had to write so far. Fifty years ago the village of Aberfan was struck with a terrible disaster, which would take away the lives of more than a hundred children in just a few moments.

There may be some who read this that still remember that day, whether there in person or who saw it play out on the television. I hope my attempt to set out the events of that day will not cause you more grief, but that you find comfort in knowing the love and sympathy others still have for you in your loss. If you’d prefer to skip this episode, I should be back next week on time for Aberfeldy.


The village of Aberfan is situated on the River Taf, about half way between Abercanaid and Abercynon at the mouth of the Fan. It began life in the late 1870s, providing housing to the miners of the Merthyr Vale Colliery. The men worked hard down the mines. It was a dangerous job, but provided a living for their families.

The location was ideal for the mining companies, being on the canal that runs between Abercynon and Merthyr Tydfil. Before that time there had just been a few farmhouses. One of these farms would become an early Quaker meeting house.

It was John Nixon, a miner from Durham, who founded the Merthyr Vale Colliery. The first miners’ houses built along the Taff became known collectively as Nixonville. The pit itself was right opposite. As the pit grew the villages of Aberfan and Ynysowen (or Merthyr Vale) were expanded, and by the late 19th Century over 2,000 people were employed there.

The workforce shrunk during the first half of the 20th Century, but industrial innovations allowed the mine to remain profitable. Then in 1947 the coal mines were nationalised, and Merthyr Vale became the property of the National Coal Board.

Over time, the spoil from the mines was piled up into great hills, known as ‘tips’, that dominated the once-green landscape around the village. When it rained there would often been slippages, and so the tips were monitored.

A few years before the disaster a new tip had been started, Tip Number Seven, located close behind Aberfan and its schools. There was some concerns about the danger this posed to the village, and these were raised with the National Coal Board. But nothing had been done about it.

Wales is known for being a rainy country, but the start of October 1966 was particularly bad. It rained for three weeks, on and off, and there had already been signs of slippage. The warning signs were ignored.

21 October 1966. It was half-way through the autumn term, and as usual schools across Britain were preparing for the half-term holiday. All the children were looking forward to not only getting out of school early today, but also getting a whole week away from school. So instead of having assembly first thing in the morning, as usual, they were going to have one at midday instead. By 9.15 all the children of Pantglas School, Aberfan were settling down to their lessons.

But on top of Tip Number Seven it was a different story. The rain had soaked so much into the spoil that it became like a liquid. Like a wave, it poured down onto the school, crushing into the classrooms. The brave teachers moved to protect the children from the wave as it fell around them, then solidified once more.

Within minutes the crisis alarm sounded at the mine, and the men flooded out and down to the school, beginning the work to remove debris and free those beneath. The emergency services were called, and soon fire services, police, doctors were all on the scene. And so was the media. This was to be one of the first disasters broadcast live into the homes of people all across the nation.

Few made it out of the school alive. A mere handful of children and teachers. They were taken to hospital, their physical injuries healed. But in these infant days of psychological care, the necessary support for their recovery, for their families and for all the village, was missing.

I cannot begin to comprehend what the next days must have been like for the people of Aberfan. The parents lining up to identify their children in the chapel, some beyond recognition. The emergency service workers clearing the rubble, searching with hope beyond hope for another survivor. The visible scar on the mountainside where the spoil tip fell.

At the end of it all, 116 children and 28 adults were killed. The youngest was just three months old. And for the children left, their playmates had gone; to play in the street now would be to bring further grief to grieving families. Their childhoods were taken away from them.

The world had watched the events at Aberfan, and now they responded with heartfelt love and sympathy, pouring money into a charity fund for relief and support for those in need. Not only the school but local houses had been destroyed and would need to be replaced. But the charity funds were not well managed, and it took some time for compensation to be handed out to the families.

Where Pantglas School had stood, a memorial was erected. Many of the children have been buried there, and in more recent years their parents. As for the chapel where the bodies had been taken for identification, the residents of Aberfan no longer felt able to worship there. It was razed and has been replaced.

Fifty years on from the disaster, the BBC produced a web resource with interviews, images and stories from those impacted by these events. I would highly recommend reading it. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-150d11df-c541-44a9-9332-560a19828c47

The mine remained open for fifteen more years, until in 1989 it was closed down. Marking its place is the wooden statue of a coal miner.

Next week we’re travelling to Aberfeldy in Perthshire, surrounded by the beauty of nature and the ancient dwellings of men.


The Chapels of Aberfan, Welldigger, 11 October 2016


Episodes 55-57 – Abereiddy, Aberedw and Abererch

Yesterday was an exciting day for Britain, and Wales in particular, as an earthquake magnitude 4.4 shook the country. The epicentre was at Cwmllynfell, just a few miles west of Abercraf. It’s the strongest earthquake recorded here since 1906, and the strongest in Britain for ten years. People from as far away as Bristol and the Lake District felt the tremor, which caused minor damage and frightened a few animals. Fortunately there don’t seem to be any serious injuries.

It’s very likely that this quake will have been felt across the three villages we’re visiting this week. In general the ‘Aber’ towns and villages have given us a lot of history, but our alphabetical adventure now takes us to places where the big event is the village fête every summer. I’m going to break with my alphabetical ordering slightly so that we can travel from the most southerly village, Abereiddy, to the central village of Aberedw, and finally to the northern village of Abererch.

Episode 55 – Abereiddy, Pembrokeshire

We start in Pembrokeshire, at a hamlet just along the coast from Abercastle. Abereiddy (alternatively ‘Abereiddi’) is furthest west we’ve been not just in Wales, but in all mainland Britain. Much like Abercastle it’s a small seaside village, a cluster of houses overlooking a bay.

The small size of the village – really just a cluster of houses – means there isn’t even a shop or a pub. But the buildings fallen to ruin in the north of the settlement show that this was a thriving industrial area in the nineteenth century.

Slate was then in high demand across the country, with much of it coming from North Wales and Pembrokeshire. Pembrokeshire slate was particularly prized for its colouring, though it generally lacked the quality of North Wales, and could not be produced in anything like as high quality. Even so, around a hundred slate quarries opened up in the region.

Abereiddy was one of the major quarries, right by the sea to the north of the hamlet. A small amount of slate was worked in 1838, but in 1841 things really got going as several London gentlemen purchased the quarry. Soon they had over 50 men working in their quarries here and at Trwyn Llwyd, a large number at the time. The slate would be shipped via a new tramroad down to Porthgain, and from there out to sea.

From 1855 the quarry was operated by Barry Island Slate and Slab Co. Ltd, who opened up a third quarry at Porthgain itself. Business was booming at the start, and they invested a good amount in machinery and workers, bringing in men from North Wales. They soon advertised sales of roof slates, slabs for tombstones, cisterns, floors, windowsills and whatever use anyone could find for the stone.

But the fate of company-run quarries in Pembrokeshire was not a happy one. For whatever reason even those invested in failed, and only those ran by private owners seemed to succeed. By 1860 Barry Island had gone bankrupt, and the slaters went home, leaving their wives behind.

Over the next few decades, a succession of companies attempted to achieve success where previous companies had failed. But each time time they fell into the same pattern, with a flood of workers and activity for five years, and then five years later fading away for the next company to try. The fluctuation of population would have been a difficult challenge for the small parish.

Eventually in 1905 the slate quarry closed its doors. The wall of the quarry would later be blasted through to the sea, flooding it with water so that the bottom was several feet deep. It would gain a new name – the “Blue Lagoon”.

By turning the quarry into a sea-filled lagoon, the future of Abereiddy was assured. Today it is a popular place for watersports, with coasteering and kayaking taking place here. Most notably, it has hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series on several occasions, with a dive of 27 metres from the top of the quarry. If you’re feeling brave enough to try this yourself, make sure you have adequate supervision, as quarry diving can be a deadly activity.

1961 pirate adventure film Fury at Smuggler’s Bay was set in Cornwall, but in fact was filmed at Abereiddy.

Episode 56 – Aberedw, Powys

Moving north east, we come to the heart of Wales’s rolling hills, close to the town of Llandrindod Wells. Here, not so far from the English border, lies the village of Aberedw, where the Edw flows into the River Wye. The Wye is Britain’s fifth-longest river, and plays a role in shaping Aberedw’s history.

This secluded village houses just a few hundred residents, a shop and a couple of churches. The older of the churches connects to the early days of Christianity in Wales, and is named after a St. Cewydd (or ‘Kevid’) an early Christian missionary. The yew trees on the north side of the church also date from this time.

It’s believed that when Cewydd arrived at Aberedw there was already a pre-Christian site of worship here. He lived in a nearby cave while he was preaching to the people, and they would later build a church on this site. He’s an unusual saint to come across, with only two other locations named after him in all Britain, both local to this area. He is also the Welsh patron saint of rain, and he must get a lot of prayer since Wales is a very rainy country.

St. Cewydd would not be the only resident of this cave over the centuries, and in the thirteenth century it would become better known for a more famous resident – Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also known as Llywelyn the Last, grandson of Llywelyn the Great.

King John’s daughter Joan hadn’t been that Llywelyn’s first wife. He’d previously been married to Tangwystl, and they’d had a son Gruffydd. There were also children from the second married, most notably David. The half-brothers feuded following their father’s death, and abandoned their duty towards Gwynedd. Through their mismanagement much of the kingdom would fall into English hands.

But Gwynedd’s son Llywelyn stood up for his land. He declared himself Prince of Wales, a title recognised in 1267 by Henry III of England. But after Henry’s death, his son Edward was not so favourable. Edward wanted all of Great Britain to submit to him, and Gwynedd was Wales’s last holdout. This same attitude led to the appointment of John Balliol in Scotland, following by the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Edward was able to suppress Llywelyn, forcing his submission and giving him control over a small area of land. Llywelyn was humiliated, and retaliated with an uprising against his overlord. This culminated one snowy night at Edward’s newly-built castle at Bulith Wells, just a few miles north west of Aberedw, in 1282.

When Llywelyn tried to get access to the castle, he was found out and turned away. He fled to nearby Aberedw Castle, one of his residences, intending to stay there overnight. But the English soon found out where he was staying, and began to surround the castle. To try and fool the English, he persuaded a blacksmith to reverse the shoes on his horse so it would be hard to track him, and fled to the cave.

The blacksmith was not loyal to Llywelyn, however, and betrayed the plan to the English. They followed the horses tracks to the cave, entered, and killed him. His head was taken off and brought to London, where it was paraded triumphantly through the streets.

Other versions of the story suggest Llywelyn fled back towards Bulith, crossing over the Wye and destroying bridges behind him. But the English found a ford, crossed over and killed him at a place now called Cwm Llywelyn.

This was the end for an independent Welsh kingdom. Gwynedd became firmly under English control, and less than ten years later was mentioned in the taxatio ecclesiastica, Edward’s tax on the church to raise money for the Scottish wars.

The existing building of St. Cewydd’s church is younger than these events, its earliest parts being constructed in the 14th Century. Like so many of the churches we’ve visited, bits and pieces have been added onto over the years, and major restorations took place towards the end of the 19th Century and in the early 20th Century.

23 June 1987 was to be a date of shock and tragedy for the village of Aberedw. Three military jets – SEPECAT Jaguar GR1s – were flying up the Wye on a training mission. Flight Lieutenant Ian David Hill was acting as an aggressor against his companions, then entered one of their slipstreams and had to bank hard to avoid a collision with the ground.

The pilot lost control of the plane and was forced to eject, but it was too late. The plane hit the ground and he was killed instantly. There is a memorial to him on the outside of the church.

Episode 57 – Abererch, Gwynedd

Abererch (alternatively ‘Abereirch’) is the quietest of the three villages we’re visiting today. It’s a seaside village on the Lleyn Peninsula, a little further east than Aberdaron. Oddly this isn’t actually where the Erch reaches the sea, but instead the river meanders westwards a bit further to the town of Pwllheli.

Like Aberedw its oldest church dates back to the fourteenth century. The Welsh revival brought a variety of protestant denominations to the area, and there are also independent and Methodist chapels.

There was a woollen factory in the area from 1835 to 1882, as this area of Wales became an important textile manufacturing location, though this was mostly for the local market.

It’s been a little tricky to find out any more information on the village, but I did come across references to Abererch in the Reform Act of 1832. The reform act was enforced by the Liberal government in order to reshape parliamentary boroughs to fit the current demographics of Britain so that each member of parliament would be elected by an equal number of people, and enfranchise more people to be able to vote. With the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote in Britain taking place in 2018, it’s interesting to note that the stipulation against women voting was only explicitly set out in the 1832 act, as before that time propertied women could vote or appoint a male proxy to vote on their behalf.

The lack of consistency between borough size and members of parliament elected had become especially apparent with the mass migration of the industrial revolution, and some boroughs were left with as little as seven voters. The county borough of Carnarvon, had just 500 voters whereas Yorkshire had 10,000.

Today it is up to the local authorities to set election districts, but there was too much opposition in 1832 for the Liberals to allow this to take place. Instead the act set forth the boundaries of each district. It must have been months or even years of work collecting all the data and analysing it without the help of computers, and yet they succeeded.

Caernarvon district was split into six boroughs. Four kept their old boundaries, but there were updates to Bangor and Pwllheli. The eastern boundary of Pwllheli would be marked by Abererch.

Since that time many more reforms have been made, and constituency borders are reviewed on regular occasions by an independent committee to ensure fairness. And the enfranchisement of voters continues to be under examination, with many asking if the voting age should be lowered from eighteen to sixteen.

Next week will be one of the hardest episodes I’ve had to write so far for this blog, as we visit the village without any children, Aberfan, in the heart of industrial Wales.






Episode 54 – Aberdyfi, Gwynedd

Aberdyfi, or Aberdovey in its anglicised form, is a small seaside village half way up the west coast of Wales. As its name suggests, this is sits where the River Dovey (or Dyfi) arrives at Cardigan Bay, the area of sea enclosed by Wales’s northern and southern peninsulas.

This area has inspired poems and stories for centuries, and in recent years become a thriving seaside resort. But nearly nine hundred years ago it was a place of war.

War on land and sea

So often we’ve come across the same familiar figures battling their way across the Welsh valleys, the Welsh warrior kings Owain ap Gruffydd of Gwynedd, and Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth. Aberdyfi marked and still marks Gwynedd’s southern border, and Rhys built a motte castle here for his northern defence. Today all that remains of Aberdyfi Castle is a mound of earth covered in grass, at the end of the river estuary.

The castle remained safe from Owain but not the invading Normans, who took it in 1158. Rhys soon captured it back, but later in life he would make his peace with England. The northern neighbour of Gwynedd would be less cooperative, and it would be many decades before their princes finally gave up their sovereignty.

King John of England was a particular thorn in Gwynedd’s side. In 1201 Prince Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd had signed a truce with him, one of the earliest written agreements between Welsh and English rulers. He even married the king’s daughter, Joan.

Llywelyn began to form friendships with some of John’s least-favourite lords, and fell out of favour with the king. Soon John had formed an English army to attack Gwynedd, with the help of the more compliant Welsh lords. Llywelyn was defeated and forced to give up some of his land.

Over time the Welsh lords would realise their mistake in supporting John, and switched their allegiance back to Gwynedd. When the English barons finally rose up against their king, Llywelyn led an army into England and captured Shrewsbury in 1215.

John was eventually forced to submit to his barons, leading to the signing of a significant document – Magna Carta. It was a long way from democracy, but the English monarchy would no longer be a dictatorship. As part of the agreement, much land in Wales was given up to Gwynedd. Llywelyn’s son, an English hostage, was also liberated.

The empowered Prince Llywelyn called an assembly of the Welsh lords at Aberdyfi Castle in 1216. They agreed to submit to him, and in return were granted territory across South Wales.

King John died soon after, and Llywelyn made peace with his successor Henry III. But the power he had gained meant it would be a long time before the English would challenge Gwynedd again.

Eventually the whole of Wales would come under English control, but Aberdyfi remained almost entirely uninhabited. Only in the fishing season did anyone stay here. A survey of Welsh ports, creeks and landing places said in 1569:

Devye being a Haven, and having no habitacion, but only three houses, whereunto there is no resort save only in the time of ffyshinge. There is a wonderful greate resorte of ffyshers assembled from all places in this Realm, with Ships, Boottes and Vessels…

At Aberdulais we spoke about how Queen Elizabeth I had been raising money for a fleet to oppose the Spanish in their attempts to attack Britain from the sea. In fact, the Spanish were as often thwarted by the weather as by the English, most notably in the Armada of 1588 when a terrible storm devastated the Spanish fleet. The less-famous but equally disastrous Third Armada of 1597 has an interesting connection to Aberdyfi.

As the Spanish fleet approached the English channel, they came across an English bark and sank it, taking the surviving crew prisoner. But this was to be the only English casualty of the battle. A storm rose up, just as it had a decade ago. The Spanish had learned from the previous time and did their best to stay in contact and ride out the bad weather. While losses were not so complete, they still had casualties.

Several of the ships were swept up north of Cornwall and onto the Welsh coast. On 26 October The Bear of Amsterdam was beached at Aberdyfi. The sailors tried to get ashore, but the local militia killed two and captured four of the men. The rest escaped back aboard the ship, but they couldn’t go anywhere.

Even after the rest of the Spanish fleet was defeated and forced into retreat, The Bear of Amsterdam was still grounded. The militia couldn’t get onto the ship, lacking the right boats for a boarding party, and the wind thwarted an attempt to burn it. Fortunately for the Bear the sea turned after ten days and they were able to escape.

They headed around Cornwall and began searching for the Spanish fleet, not knowing that it had been turned for home. But the November storm was still blowing and they were swept east along the English channel. On 10 November she was captured at Falmouth, and 70 men were taken prisoner. It seems almost a waste after that much effort.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century Aberdyfi was beginning to pick up attention. In 1785 a comic opera, Liberty Hall, was written including the song The Bells of Aberdovey, composed by Charles Dibdin. Despite the recent origins it was soon claimed to be a Welsh folk song, and was translated to Welsh in the mid-nineteenth century by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes.

The song harkens back to the legend of Cantref Gwaelod, the ‘Lowland Hundred’, when a kingdom was said to exist between Bardsey Island and Ramsay Island – where Cardigan Bay is today. It is said to have been protected from the sea by dykes and sluice gates, until the negligent prince Seithennin left the floodgates open and the sea swept over the land, washing it all away. To this day it is said that the church bells of Gwaelod can be heard ringing from below the waves – these are the Bells of Aberdyfi. In 1936, new bells were installed in St. Peter’s Church that would allow the Bells of Aberdyfi tune to be played.

John Ceiriog Hughes also wrote his own poem about Aberdyfi. It tells of a shepherd calling out to his wife to forgive him and return to him and his son.

19th Century Aberdyfi

As the 19th Century dawned, Aberdyfi began to change. A road was cut through the rock on the east side of the village, allowing horses and carriages through. Today much of the rock has worn away, but it can still be walked with ease. This path is sometimes mistakenly called the ‘Roman Road’.

Soon the village was bustling, and by mid-century was home to seven major shipbuilding companies. Trade across the Irish Sea between Bristol, Dublin and Liverpool – the three major ports of the British Empire – was in full swing, and every shipbuilder wanted to be nearby to take advantage. Forty-five sailing ships were built here between 1840 and 1880.

It was not only shipbuilding that attracted people to the area. Its fantastic beaches made it an ideal seaside resort, and the Victorians were soon building a railway here, completed by 1867. A jetty was built to allow cargo vessels to dock, and the trains would run right up to the ships to collect goods such as livestock from Ireland, delivered by the Aberdyfi and Waterford Steamship Company. Coal, limestone and timber were also popular imports.

Aberdyfi is rather unusual in that it has two train stations – Penhelig to the east, and Aberdovey to the west. Aberdovey Station is close to the golf course, today a world class resort right by the beach. But the course’s history began with an army officer needing entertainment on his holiday. The story has it that Colonel Arthur Astley Ruck borrowed nine flower pots from a local woman, dug nine holes in the marsh, and thus created a golf course! Colonel Ruck’s family are closely connected to Aberdyfi, and there’s a few other family members whose achievements I’ll come back to later.

The Second World War

The Second World War brought many visitors and changes to Aberdyfi, thanks to its remote seaside location. Some of the first visitors came in 1941 with the opening of ‘The Outward Bound Sea School’. Many young men had signed up to join the merchant navy, and here they learned essential survival skills that would save their lives during the war. By 1944 apprentices from industry, police, fire and cadets were attending. It would soon change its name to ‘Outward Bound’, and its life continued after the war as a centre for adventure, survival and activity for young people. Further centres were opened across the UK and in Europe.

Many Jewish refugees from across Nazi-controlled Europe, particularly Germans and Austrians, ended up in Britain. Not content to sit around, they wanted to join the British Army and fight to free their people and their countries. Several of them ended up in No. 3 troop, No. 10 commando.

Of course they couldn’t go into enemy territory with their own names and identities, else if captured they would end up back in the Nazi concentration camps. So every one of them had false papers, histories and families. From 1942-3 they were stationed at Aberdyfi, and a monument has been erected and dedicated to their service.

It was the last day of 1943. A bombing exercise had been taking place near Aberdyfi, and now the aircraft turned for home. One Vickers Wellington aircraft containing five crew crossed the estuary and began to descend through the clouds. But the pilot had his timing wrong, and as he emerged from the clouds he saw the hills too close beneath him. He attempted to escape, banking to port, but it was too late. His wing struck the ground and the plane smashed into the hillside, bursting into flame. Only two survived the accident.

Following the war, Aberdyfi became a quiet seaside resort once again. In the summer its numbers swell as visitors come to the beach, to play golf or to visit the Outward Bound centre. At the end of August there’s a great lantern and firework show. From what I’ve read, it sounds like a great place if you want the pleasure of the sea without the throngs of more popular towns.

People of Aberdyfi

A number of well-known people have resided in Aberdyfi over the years. Many have literary connections, and a number of books have featured the town.

Romance author Berta Ruck (daughter of the aforementioned Colonel Ruck) lived in Aberdyfi for her early childhood years. Amy Roberta was born in 1879 at Murree, Punjab, India, a mountain town founded as a medical recuperation centre for British troops. She was Colonel Ruck’s eldest child, and had seven siblings. At two years old she was sent to live with her grandmother in Aberdyfi, until her father returned to the UK and a post in Caernarfonshire.

She was skilled both at writing and drawing, but writing was her first love. She met George Onions in 1902 in London, and they married in 1909. Their two sons Arthur and Bill were born just before the First World War, and after the war George would change his name to George Oliver, to avoid their sons suffering ridicule for the surname.

It was during the war that Berta really got going as a writer, and her career continued all the way through to the 1970s. Outside of writing, she was involved with promoting women’s freedom such as dress reform and contraception.

The couple lived in London until just before the Second World War, when they moved to Aberdyfi. Even after Oliver’s death she remained an active author and occasional BBC broadcaster, and lived until nine days after her hundredth birthday.

Several novels have featured Aberdyfi, most notably Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis’s romance novel ‘Miss Venus of Aberdovey’, and Susan Cooper’s Arthurian fantasy series ‘The Dark Is Rising’.


Over the last century there have been two Barons of Aberdyfi, the title granted in each case for excellence and merit in their respective fields.

James Atkin was born in Australia in 1867. His mother Mary came from the same Ruck family as Berta and her father. When he was still young, Mary brought her children back to the family home on the Dyfi, where Berta would live when she was a child. Perhaps they even knew each other, as being separated by twelve years he would still have been in school when she returned from India.

After university James was called to the bar by one of the four inns of court – Greys Inn. You may recall it as one of the only four institutions that are allowed to appoint barristers in England and Wales. He soon established a practice in commercial law, and his expertise in this area would place him in a good position when he became a judge in 1913.

In 1928 he was appointed Baron Atkin of Aberdovey (the Welsh spelling then being less-commonly used), and began working in the House of Lords. The House of Lords has a dual purpose – not only to scrutinise laws proposed by the House of Commons, but also as the highest court in Britain.

One case that came to the House of Lords in 1932 was that of Donoghue vs Stevenson, also called the ‘Paisley Snail’ case. Mrs. Donoghue had been visiting a friend at a cafe in Paisley, and asked for a bottle of ginger beer. While drinking from the dark glass bottle, she found that a dead snail was inside. She became sick, and wanted to sue the ginger beer makers for the injury they had caused her.

At the time there was no liability in law for a company causing such harm on a person – only physical damage to a person or onto their property were causes for making a claim. The manufacturer had no legal responsibility towards the consumer regardless of any damage occurring.

The case made its way through the Scottish Court of Session and from there, after appeals, to the House of Lords. Here several of the Lords presided, including Baron Atkin. The five ruled 3-2 in favour of Mrs Donoghue, and this would establish the principle in English and Scottish law that manufacturers had a general duty of care to their customers. James Atkin would call this the ‘neighbour principle’, that a person should take reasonable care not to injure someone else through action or inaction.

James Atkin spent every summer in Aberdyfi with his wife and children, and was well loved in the village. He died here in June 1944 after a long and successful life.


Kenneth Morgan was born near Aberdyfi in 1934. He soon became a historian, completing a PhD on the role of Wales in British politics in the late 19th Century. This included issues of disestablishment (the Welsh church breaking away from the English one), Irish home rule, and attitudes to an upcoming World War. Soon after he began teaching at the University of Swansea. From 1989 to 1995 he was vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

His historical focus has tended to be on recent political history, and he has completed biographies of many important British politicians including David Lloyd George, James Keir Hardie, and James Callaghan. From 1961 to 2003 he edited the Welsh History Review.

As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, and with a highly esteemed record, he was made Baron Morgan of Aberdyfi in 2000. Joining the House of Lords, he participates in the Constitution Committee, which examines upcoming bills for their constitutional implications.


Other notable figures connected to Aberdyfi include resident Sir John T Houghton, who chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and sci-fi author and computer scientist Christopher Richie Evans was born in the village.


Next time we’re off to the village of Aberedw, where the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, met his grizzly end.


Aberdyfi Castle, Welsh Icon News

Aberdyfi Motte, Castle Wales

Aberdyfi Walk – Weatherman Walking, BBC

Bells of Aberdovey

The Shepherd of Aberdovey

History of the Trust, Outward Bound

No. 3 Jewish Troop of the No. 10 Commando, Jewish Virtual Library

Aberdovey, Wales: a quick guide to the best places to stay, eating out and local walks, Carys Matthews, Countryfile Magazine, 28 July 2017

Aberdovey – Real Wales Without Crowds, Daniel Jones, Simon Seeks

Aberdovey, Snowdonia

Aberdyfi/Aberdovey, Visit Mid Wales

History of Aberdyfi, Aberdyfi official website

RUCK, AMY ROBERTA (‘BERTA RUCK’) (1878-1978), novelist, Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Aberystwyth, 2015, Dictionary of Welsh Biography





Episode 53 – Aberdulais, Neath Port Talbot

1558. Queen Mary has died, and now her sister Elizabeth sits on the English throne. Catholicism is overthrown, and Protestantism restored as the religion of the land. Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain, decries Elizabeth as an illegitimate ruler, and plots to invade and place Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne.

The English are well aware of the threat from the south, and Elizabeth needs coin to build a defensive navy, to protect against the Spanish armada. She invites expert German miners to come and exploit the copper resources beneath her soil, to be smelted, minted and returned to the royal coffers. The Elizabethans lack the economic knowledge to understand that this can lead to inflation and devalued currency.

One of these German miners is Ulrich Frosse. He’s soon founding new mines in Cornwall, and claims to have found a more efficient process to smelt the copper and turn it to coin. But he wants to keep it a secret from his competitors, and needs an out-of-the-way location to begin his work.

Luckily, such a location is available. It has water power, easy access to coal and timber, and is a short journey upriver from the port of Neath. So begins the story of Aberdulais, one of the earliest industrial sites in Wales.

Aberdulais Mills

It’s the waterfall at Aberdulais that made this such a perfect location, just before the river Dulais (‘duh-LACE’) arrives at the Neath. It’s just a few miles from the town of Neath, which back then was a small market town with a Norman castle. The river opens up to an estuary, and a port was built here that would soon get busy during the industrial revolution.

From 1584 copper ore would be shipped across the Bristol Channel from Ulrich Frosse’s Cornish mines, up the Neath, and then smelted at Aberdulais in brand-new reverbatory furnaces that the German had imported. They were like nothing the country had ever seen before.

They were a great success, and Ulrich could report that “we have founde out a waye to melte 24 hundredweight of owre every day w’th one furnas, the Lorde be thanked, and if we may have owre anoughe from yo’r side we may with God’s helpe melte w’th two furnases in 40 weeks 560 tonnes of owre”

The waterwheel set up at the site created a great amount of power. As an ‘overshot’ wheel – pouring the water from the top and using the force of gravity to turn it – it provided energy to everything that needed regular circular motion, in particular the bellows.

Although the venture wouldn’t much outlast Elizabeth’s death, it showed the changing face of British industry at the time, exploiting new resources, employing foreign experts, and economically linking different regions of England. But financial concerns, along with Aberdulais’s distance from the mines and markets, would bring the copperworks here to an end.

The next enterprise came within three decades, as a fulling mill was established. Fulling was the process by which woollen cloth from the local farms was cleaned of impurities and thickened. In the cleansing process, a clay-like material called fuller’s earth was rubbed into the cloth, which would absorb the natural oils. Then, the cloth would be thickened by pounding hammers powered from the water wheel. This made the woollen fibres hook together.

Following the thickening process, the cloth was washed to remove the fuller’s earth, then strung out on frames called tenters. This is the origin of the phrase ‘being on tenterhooks’, meaning to be held in suspense.

Later, dying was added to the setup.

By 1715, Aberdulais Mill had changed again, with the addition of a grist mill to grind wheat into flour. There were soon three on the site. I would guess that the population increase brought about by the industrial revolution was what prompted this need. The three mills were still there at the start of the 19th Century.

It was during the grist mill period that a number of artists came to visit Aberdulais, to paint the waterfall, the scenery and the buildings. One such artist was JMW Turner, who in 1795 created the watercolour Aberdulais Mill. In the foreground is the River Dulais, where women are washing out cloth. Behind is the waterfall and the mill buildings, with the great wheel turning under the water’s power.

New life was brought to Aberdulais in 1831 with the introduction of a tinplate works. Infrastructure had improved greatly since 1584 and the copperworks, thanks to the canals that now stretched across the country.

The Tennant Canal was an enlargement and extension of an abandoned canal from two decades previously. In the 1820s George Tennant extended this canal to run from the River Neath to the River Tawe at Swansea docks. He later continued it on to Aberdulais, taking advantage of the new works there that would provide him with more revenue and increased traffic.

We’ve previously seen how acts of Parliament were issued to allow the canal builders to take hold of the land they needed without trouble, but George Tennant hadn’t done this. He ended up getting into a lengthy dispute with a local landowner over the route of the canal, which delayed its opening somewhat. But once it had opened it was soon filled with traffic, as the Swansea docks were much better than those in Neath for delivering cargo.

William Llewellyn’s tinplate works were another example of innovation first seen at Aberdulais. Tinplates were created by making iron (later steel) into flat plates, then coating the outside with tin. Here at Aberdulais, it was one of the first times the ingots had been rolled into shape, and also where the rollers were powered – in this case by the waterwheel. This was in contrast to previous efforts that had involved beating the iron with hammers until it was flat. The new technique would have dramatically improved the quality of the plates.

It was during this time that the British people began to be concerned about the welfare and working habits of children in industry, and a three year investigation took place across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales into mines and factories. They took thousands of pages of testimony, and in 1842 published the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission.

The report found that at Aberdulais of the 138 employees, 34 were children between the ages of eight and thirteen. One of the youngest reported: “It was so hot, the sweat ran out of their shoes.” Another, a nine-year-old boy whose job was to separate the thin iron plates, often tore his fingers. He said “mother ties them with rags and I work on again.”

It is heartbreaking to think that children so young should have to work at all. They were considered cheap labour compared with an adult, and perhaps also nobody had thought about these issues when factory work began – children often started helping on the farms from a very young age. As a result of the report, laws were issued to improve safety standards and to restrict how children could be employed.

Within twenty years Aberdulais was so busy that a second works was added, connected to the upper works by a tramway. Both were also connected to the canal in the same way.

Tinplate was hugely in demand, with nearly 500,000 tons being exported worldwide by 1891. This was especially the case in the US, where tin cans were being used for packaging. Welsh tinplate was considered essential to the process.

But that same year everything was about to change. The US was concerned about protecting and developing American industries, and placed a tariff on various imported products including tinplate. Many Welshmen emigrated to the States to assist in starting a new tinplate industry over there.

Soon after that the tinplate industry in Britain came to an end, and very few factories remain today. While it is still used for food packaging, other tinplate uses such as to make toys have been replaced with the safer, more durable plastic.

In recent decades, Aberdulais has become the property of the National Trust, who run a heritage centre here. The water wheel has been converted to generate electricity, which feeds back green energy to the national grid. In fact, it’s the largest electricity-generating water wheel in Europe!

Apologies for the short episode this week. Next week we’ll be heading to the seaside, to visit the Victorian village of Aberdyfi on Wales’s west coast.


Villages of Britain: The Five Hundred Villages that Made the Countryside, Clive Aslet, Bloomsbury Publishing, 15 August 2011

Aberdulais: An Industrial Revolution since 1584, The National Trust

Aberdulais Tin Works and Waterfall, David Ross, Britain Express

Renewal and Reformation: Wales C. 1415-1642, Glanmor Williams, Oxford University Press, 1993

Episode 52 – Aberdour, Fife – Part 3

This week we’ll look at the village of Aberdour right up to the present day, as England and Scotland come together under one monarch and one parliament. What involvement did the well-connected Earls of Morton have in this process? And how did their lives and the village change as the endless wars between the two countries came to an end?

Britain United

Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless, and her cousin James VI of Scotland inherited her throne. It was to mark a new era of peace between the countries.

Three years later, in 1606, Aberdour also gained a new lord in William Douglas, Eighth Earl Morton. Because of some confusion caused over numbering with John Maxwell and Archibald Douglas (both had the right to call themselves the Fifth Earl), he’s sometimes called the Seventh Earl. But for the purposes of this blog, and matching Historic Scotland’s counting, we’ll stick with eight.

William was one of the wealthiest, most respected men in Britain. His kitchens overflowed with expensive spices such as pepper and saffron, though their prices were beginning to come down as the Dutch and English overcame Portugal’s spice trade monopoly. He often travelled down to lodgings at Whitehall, in Westminster, bringing vast amounts of furniture with him at great cost:

7 fether beddes, 12 tables, 2 Bedsteids for my Lord, 3 Great carpittes

As a gentleman of James VI’s bedchamber, he would be a close companion of the king, guarding his room while he slept and attending while he dressed and ate. It was considered a high honour. Indeed, William even bore the Royal Standard at James’s funeral.

At Aberdour Castle he had a whole new wing built, making the east side of the present building which remains in good condition to this day. It was L-shaped, with a spiral staircase connecting the rooms at the corner. At the top of the three stories on the long leg was a gallery, a panneled room filled with pictures, furnishings and a harpsichord. Here the family would have entertained guests.

Below the gallery, taking up the space of two stories, were the stables. William loved horses, and sent his son to Paris to learn specialist riding skills. He once paid 18 shillings to see a dancing horse perform, considered quite a lavish expense.

On the short leg of the ‘L’ were three square rooms. The middle of the two rooms is notable for its rare painted ceiling, containing images of fruit, flowers and other fashionable designs. Today it is protected from fading by being kept in darkness, but blankets and torches are provided for visitors to lie back and imagine how bright and beautiful it must once have been.

The stables lead out onto the castle courtyard, and on the other side is the walled garden. William and his wife Anne Keith – of the Marischals we met at Aberdeen – had their monograms above the entrances. We are not sure what it was originally used for, but by 1668 it was a bowling green. It’s also the way through from the castle to the church.

King James’s successor was his son Charles, who managed drive a rift between the monarchy and parliament. The Earls of Morton were amongst those who remained loyal to the king. William sold off the family estates at Dalkeith, losing the title Lord Dalkeith from their inheritance. Instead, he adopted Aberdour as their main home, and the Earl’s heir would now be called Lord Aberdour.

Charles rewarded William for his support by granting him the islands of Orkney and Zetland. As the war turned against the monarchy, the Earls went to Kirkwall at Orkney, intending to gather support and stage a fightback. They tried to raise revenue from the Orcadians though an illegal tax, but it didn’t matter much anyway. William died on Orkney in 1648, and his son Robert followed him the next year.


For a time Britain had no monarch, until Charles II returned in 1660. The Earls of Morton sometimes struggled to regain royal favour, perhaps due to their support of the protestant monarchs. At one point they had Orkney and Zetland taken from them, though these would later be restored.

Towards the end of the 17th Century, Aberdour Castle underwent further changes. The garden received a great expansion, with the orchard laid out by gardener Charles Liddel. Exotic American plants were supplied by the Physic Garden in Edinburgh, now the Royal Botanic Garden. They cost nearly £10,500 in today’s money.

Charles Liddel would have used glass bells to protect saplings young plants as they grew. These were like mini-greenhouses, keeping out the cold but allowing in warmth and sunlight. They were high status objects found in royal gardens, showing that Aberdour still retained its wealth.


James, Robert and George Douglas were the sons of the Tenth Earl of Morton (by traditional numbering rather than Historic Scotland). All three would be involved as the countries of Scotland and England moved towards becoming a single nation with a single parliament.

As Eleventh Earl of Morton, James was one of Queen Anne’s privy councillors and also appointed as a commissioner for the Union of the Crowns. Robert was an MP for Kirkwall, and helped to push the resulting Act of Union through the Scottish Parliament. Following the act, George became one of the first Scottish MPs at Westminster, representing Scottish interests in an English-biased parliament.

George struggled a lot in his early years in parliament. A tax was specifically raised against whisky, which he perceived as anti-Scottish. This drove him even to suggest that Scotland leave the union, but the other Scottish MPs talked him down. After that he was quieter in the chamber. He kept his own opinions, and though he tended to side with the Whigs he sometimes voted with the Tories.

Aberdour Castle had suffered a fire in the late 1600s, rendering the west range uninhabitable. Another fire in 1710 occurred when British soldiers were staying at the castle. Robert was there at the time, and wrote to his brother with the details:

…the fire broke out with great violence… whereon Colonell Upton lay fast asleep – but his servant broke into the roum and got the Colonell out in his shirt without any harm. The wholl appartments betwixt the gallerie and the Castle are quite brunt. They saved the gallerie by building up the door way to the dineing roum with ston, most of all the pictures are broken or destroyed.

Though nobody was killed, by now most of the building was in ruins. Soon afterwards the family moved out of Aberdour Castle to Cuttlehill House next door, which was re-named Aberdour House.

George was the fourth son of the Tenth Earl, and as such would not be expected to gain much of an inheritance from the family. But then James and Robert both failed to marry. James died in 1715, with Robert becoming Twelfth Earl. And then Robert died in 1730, with George becoming Thirteenth Earl of Morton aged 68.

Because of this unexpected turn of events, George had grown up with a very different life and career. He seems to have been quite an impulsive young man.

When he was twenty-three his dog was stolen from him, and turned up at the home of the Laird of Chatto. George went to get it, and the Laird was happy to accept the ownership and return the dog. One of his footmen, however, was not so keen and confronted the young man in public.

For a servant to address a noble in such a way was an unimaginable insult, and George drew his sword in defense. The footman struck him twice with a cudgel, and he parried the attacks before accidentally running the servant through.

This at least was George’s defense. Perhaps he was being honest. Perhaps he made up the story to get away with murder. Certainly as a noble his word would be held in high regard, and other eyewitness testimony could be dismissed with a word or a payment in the right place. From the distance of 350 years it’s not something we can ascertain, and I have tried not to place myself in a position of judgement, so for now let’s just accept the events as we have been told them. What is important is that George escaped a conviction for murder, which would have led to his death and changed the line of the Earls of Morton.

He married twice, his second resulting in the birth of his son James in 1702. James Douglas, who would become Lord Aberdour on his father’s succession in 1730, would be the first of the Earls of Morton to only know Britain as a single united country.


The noblemen of the 18th Century were of a different mind to their ancestors, putting aside their swords in favour of study and scientific pursuit. James was no exception, gaining an MA from King’s College, Cambridge in 1722 before joining Edinburgh’s scientific circles. In 1733 he was appointed to the Royal Society of London.

The Edinburgh Philosophical Society – today the Royal Society of Edinburgh – was founded in 1737 by six men: Colin Maclaurin, Alexander Monroe, Lord Hope, Andrew Plummer, Alexander Lind and our own James Douglas, Lord Aberdour. He was appointed its first president, and would remain in that position until his death in 1768.

His knowledge and interest in science brought interesting visitors to Aberdour House and even the ruinous castle. By now scientists were able to predict the dates, times and types of solar eclipses with incredible accuracy. One of those was the French Astronomer Royal, Pierre Charles le Monnier.

French and English scientists seem not to have cared much about the War of Austrian Succession in the 1740s, on which the two countries were opposed. Le Monnier was well aware of English advances in astronomy, and brought these into French astronomy. He was the first to tabulate the effects of nutation – how an object changes its rotation angle over time because of the gravity from other objects. This is important for predicting eclipses well into the future.

Mere months after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war, Le Monnier crossed the channel and came all the way up to Aberdour. Here on 25 July 1748, out on Aberdour Castle’s terraced gardens, he and James Douglas observed an annual solar eclipse. Whether he needed the treaty to travel, it’s hard to say, but he would likely have been viewed with less suspicion because of it.

Shortly before his death in 1768, James Douglas raised support for Captain James Cook’s expedition to Australia. Though he would never see the voyage leave, he would be immortalised by the naming of Cape Morton, at the tip of Moreton Island, South East Queensland.

It was James’s successor, his son Sholto, whose wife would ask the noisy churchgoers at St. Fillan’s to move. Sholto would also share his father’s love for science, and died in 1774 while attempting to visit Mount Vesuvius in Sicily.

The Earls would eventually leave Aberdour, moving to Dalmahoy to the west of Edinburgh, which James Douglas had bought in 1750. The family still lives there to this day.

As for Aberdour Castle, it has fallen into ruin. The west range has mostly collapsed, and the central range is in poor condition. The east range is still good, and electricity has been added thanks to the careful preservation work of Heritage Scotland.

Aberdour’s People

Aberdour has always been a small village, avoiding the expansion that came to its neighbours at Dalgety Bay and Burntisland. Aside from fishing, there was a thriving cottage industry of hand-loom weaving.

A cottage industry, in contrast to the factories that sprung up during the industrial revolution, consisted of multiple families working together to produce the required goods. So an order for a certain amount of cloth would come in, together with the raw wool to make it. The manager would take the order around to all the different houses, and at the end of the day he would come back to collect the completed product.

At the start of the industrial revolution, the tools and knowledge were not yet there to make a machine loom, so the hand-loom weavers were in high demand with the increased output of woollen thread. This was great for Aberdour.

But towards the middle of the century machine weaving was figured out, and the hand weavers couldn’t compete with the factories. They were skilled workers, but anyone could handle a machine. The price of cloth plummeted, allowing more people to access nicer fabrics and improving the quality of life across Britain.

The hand-loom weavers, however, were out of a job. In many places in the UK, this led to unemployment, but for Aberdour the increased affluence and their beautiful beaches brought a new industry and jobs – tourism was here.

New houses were added for the wealthy summer visitors, who would stay for many weeks, and the steamers would bring across day trippers from Leith and other ports. The addition of the railway in 1890 made it even easier to get to Aberdour, and new visitors came from the west of Scotland.

The two beaches at Silver Sands and the Black Sands saw Punch and Judy shows, open-air concerts and dances throughout the summer season.


World War I, 1917. Rear-admiral Roger Keyes is stationed at Rosyth, second in command of the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy. He and his wife live at Aberdour, where she gives birth to their first child, Geoffrey. The next year he would be appointed Commander-in-Chief, Dover, and the family would say farewell to Scotland, moving to their home in Tingewick, Buckinghamshire.

Geoffrey would attend a prestigious school before attending the Royal Military College. He intended to join the army in any case, but the Second World War ensured it. He was drafted in to the Royal Scots Greys and was involved with the allied invasion of Syria in 1941, earning the Military Cross. His unit had lost their commanding officer, so Geoffrey – as a Lieutenant Colonel – assumed command.

The control of North Africa and the Middle East was considered vital for ensuring the direction of the war, because of the Mediterranean Sea. A plan was formed in October of that year to go behind enemy lines, destroying headquarters and communications channels. One of the objectives was the assassination of Erwin Rommel, the axis African commander. It was called Operation Flipper.

Geoffrey had been involved in the planning stage, and now would lead the team going in with his superior acting as an observer. He gave himself the most dangerous task – to invade what was assumed to be Rommel’s headquarters and assassinate the man.

Things went badly from the start. The submarine had a botched landing, and the torrential rain caused exhaustion as they fought to make it ashore. Half the men and equipment didn’t make it. Still they went on.

There are two stories around the events that followed. One that comes from eyewitness accounts and German records; another from the official record.

The first account suggests that as Geoffrey, his second-in-command and sergeant arrived at the house. A sentry confronted them, and the second-in-command shot to kill. They then burst inside, surprise lost. At this time the Lieutenant Colonel began to feel faint, collapsed and died.

A German autopsy would later reveal he had been shot in the back, probably by the second-in-command. He was buried in a local Catholic cemetery on Rommel’s orders, while the rest of the unit were taken prisoner.

The official account, given when Geoffrey was awarded the Victoria Cross for exemplary bravery, runs differently.

He led his men without guides in the darkness to the house. Neighbouring Arabs told him new information that caused a change of plans, leaving only the second-in-command and sergeant. They crawled past the guards, then knocked on the door to gain entry.

The door opened to reveal the sentry, who had to be shot. This roused the inhabitants of the house, so they burst in and posted the sergeant at the stairs to prevent interference from upstairs. Geoffrey shot into the first room then his officer threw a grenade. On entering the second room he was met by enemy fire and mortally wounded. His companions carried him outside where he shortly died.

It would later be revealed that this house wasn’t Rommel’s HQ at all, just a logistics depot that was rarely visited. And Rommel himself wasn’t even in Africa, but Italy. So the whole effort was a waste.

It was a tragic end to such a young life, just as so many other young men lost their lives in the Second World War.
Today Aberdour is a peaceful Forthside village of 1,500 people. The seaside concerts and festivities have evolved into a yearly festival that takes place in July and August, with thousands of people coming from all over Scotland, including my fiancé when he was a wee lad.

We’ve had a long stay in Aberdour, but it’s finally time to say goodbye. Next week we’re heading back to Wales, where I’m sure we’ll be digging more into industry and power.


Aberdour Castle (booklet), Historic Scotland

The Douglas Archives, Douglas clan

Annualar Solar Eclipse of 1748 July 25, NASA Eclipse Website, NASA

Aberdour information board, Aberdour, Fife, Scotland

Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes VC, MC, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross