The Llanddona Witches

Thursday 11 August 2011, 12:30

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The legend of the Llanddona Witches might not be the best known of Welsh legends but it is one that has a clear origin - well, as clear as you are going to find at this distance in time.

llanddona beach

Llanddona beach (image by Kristofer Williams)

According to the legend a boatload of men and women, all with Irish accents, was washed up on the coast of Anglesey, in Red Wharf Bay. The boat was without sail or oars and was sinking fast when it finally made shore. The locals were afraid and tried to drive the survivors back into the sea but one woman leapt ashore and struck the sand with a stick - her wand, perhaps? Fresh water immediately gushed out from the spot and the locals, simple fishermen and their families, fell back in horror.

An agreement was quickly reached. Whether it was prompted by fear or good fellowship, by expectation of plenty or by sheer apathy, is not known. But the local people from Llanddona agreed to let the witches - if that was what they were - to remain, provided they made their settlement outside the village. It was a terrible mistake.

The newcomers made themselves homes outside the village of Llanddona and quickly established themselves as a powerful force in the region. They bullied the villagers, lorded it around the place, and paid for no goods in the shops or from the farmers fields, simply taking what they wanted.

They put charms and spells on farms and on animals and charged to have them removed. The men - wearing distinctive red neckties - became renowned across north Wales as smugglers.

When the customs officers got too close, the men would, according to the legend, release swarms of deadly black flies from their neckties. And the forces of authority fled, leaving the men to carry on with their criminal activities.

There are dozens of stories about the Llanddona Witches. Bella Fawr and Siani Bwt were two of the most famous. Siani Bwt (meaning Short Betty) was apparently less than four feet high and, with two thumbs on her left hand, she had all the classic hallmarks of a witch.

So much for the legend. The date of their supposed arrival at Llanddona is hard to pin down. Some say it all happened at the beginning of the 17th century, others stating that it took place many years before or after.

However, visitors from the sea - usually unpleasant visitors - were, for many years, an occupational hazard for all those who lived on the Welsh coast. The Vikings, the Normans and, in particular, the Irish regularly attacked or invaded from the sea. Fear of the Irish remained long after the threat of the Vikings had diminished.

During the Civil War in the 1640s there was a constant threat of an Irish invasion when, in the imaginations of a largely Protestant Welsh and English population, the Catholic masses from across the Irish Sea might, at any moment, land to massacre and murder everyone in their beds. King Charles was widely suspected of Catholic beliefs, of plotting to bring back the Catholic religion, and the fear that he would invoke the Irish to help him in his fight was actively promoted by Parliament.

If the legend does date from the 17th century, it is clear that fears of an Irish invasion lay behind its creation and its continued popularity.

There is another possibility, however. It was 1736 before the Witch Laws were repealed and that led to a situation where people who had previously turned to the state in cases of supposed witchcraft now took the law into their own hands. Actually, what quickly began to happen was nothing new. It had been going on for years.

In distant parts of the kingdom - like the east coast of Anglesey - where the forces of law and order were often scattered and ineffective, it was invariably left to village elders to make judgements or to make decisions about issues that affected the local people.

Witches had always been feared and hated - it was a prejudice that continued unabated until well into the 19th century. The powers of darkness were never far away for a superstitious and largely uneducated people. And in coastal communities where the success of the local fishing fleet or the viability of the lobster and crab pots depended as much on luck as judgement, their power was seen as a threat to the whole community.

One way of dealing with people suspected of being witches was to cast them adrift in an open boat without food or water, sails or oars. Arguably, here we have the basis of the legend of the Llanddona Witches.

They might have been real people, suspected of witchcraft, and the legend was simply a retelling of events - with a little bit of embellishment here and there. Or the story might have been invented as a warning not to accept witches - or any strangers, for that matter, into your tight-knit and vulnerable community.

Whichever version you believe, one thing is clear. The legend of the Llanddona Witches remains one of the great Welsh fables.

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