Cover Stories – Connor Quinn and the Swan maiden

The story of Connor and the Swan maiden follows a familiar theme in folktale and one which some might find problematic in these times of heightened awareness of the power imbalance between male and female characters in so many traditional stories. 
(Although I think if we tidy up and ‘correct’ our traditional tales we are potentially just pretending these things never existed/don’t exist, better to be aware and discuss and also look for the stories that subvert these ideas, they are out there…) 

In ‘Connor Quinn and the swan maiden’ the protagonist manages to capture a shapeshifting Swan woman by picking up her cloak and they marry. Many Selkie stories have a similar theme, the man usually concealing the Selkies sealskin to force her to remain with him. 

But Beatrice (for that is the swan maidens name) is no passive victim here, she has power and agency, she is self assured and unafraid and her marriage to Connor is a bargain she strikes on her own terms.

Beatrice could leave whenever she wanted to, her feather cloak hung in her own chamber in plain sight to all. But she chooses to stay, honour her bargain and sample the human life for a while, (including bearing children for what I suspect from the story is the first time in her long life) maybe she stays out of curiosity? perhaps to punish her sisters for fleeing so readily when she was captured? The opening paragraph of the story makes it clear that her connection with them is a very close and elemental one but she then cuts them from her life very thoroughly for a while.

Personally I think it is curiosity, she has observed humanity for millennia and is looking for new experiences and new ways of being. To me she is a powerful nature spirit, uncompromising in her desires and decisions, when Connor breaks the terms she has set out she leaves immediately, taking their two children and rejoining the sisters whom she has shunned for seven years. 

Beatrice is unashamed in her nakedness, she is unashamed of everything. There was no other way she could be for me. As she emerged almost luminous from the dark background I found myself a little in love with her myself, well, a lot in love with her to be honest. I took her to be framed immediately after scanning and she now hangs at the top of my stairs to greet me every morning. 
I often wonder whether the heady, erotic opening passage of this story and the feeling that perhaps I was potentially looking at Beatrice through Connors eyes were what made me develop such a passionate attachment to this piece. But this is not a male gaze here, it is my gaze. My connection with her is of a different nature I think. I would be interested to know how you respond to her as well.

She does seem able to connect with other women too, when I asked Rab Fulton for permission to reproduce her story here, this was part of his reply:

‘Your illustration added so much to the Galway Bay Folk Tales Book, and it still inspires me it is so beautiful.

I recently showed your illustration to a women’s group in Galway. The group is made up of a mix of Traveller and Migrant women. I work with them to help them create stories for their children and friends.Anyway i wanted them to begin talking about folk tales. I deliberately chose not to tell them the story as i wanted them to make their own story using their own ideas and experiences. Instead I showed them your illustration to start a conversation going – and they were awestruck. It was incredible how your illustration really touched something in them and ignited their imaginations. So they’ve been working on a new swan maiden story, which we hope to publish in 2018. If you’d like to see a draft of that, give me a shout and i’ll send it on to you.’

And here is the story in full, reproduced with the kind permission of Rab Fulton from his book for the History press of Galway Bay Folk tales. 

Connor Quinn and the Swan maiden 

One day as the light was fading Connor Quinn walked the length of the lake of his estate. When he came to the ancient ruins of his family’s ancestral home, he sat down and looked at the water stretching away from him. A gentle breeze cooled him. The sun was low on the horizon and the rippling water glowed red and gold. As he rested he saw three swans moving gently on the water. Each bird was attired in feathers as white and dazzling as midnight stars and they moved with a grace and nobility that showed their superiority to any of nature’s other creations.
​As the creatures drew closer to the shore Connor was touched by a deep and terrible melancholy. Compared to the perfection and contentment of the three birds his struggle for wealth and power seemed pitiful. His whole live had been dedicated to bringing renewed honour and status to his family, but suddenly he understood that his name and his history had no more importance than a speck of dust in a giant’s eye or grain of sand in the hand of God. The swans, on the other hand, seemed to Connor to exist with a complete disregard to the limits of time and space.
​The swans moved across the lake, drawing nearer to the shore were Connor sat. The young man wiped his eyes and carefully hid himself behind a broken wall. Sending a wish and a prayer out to the infinite he peered over the ruin and saw, to his delight, that the swans were now stepping onto to the grassy bank some thirty or forty feet away. One of the creatures nodded its heads and stretched out its great white wings. Connor was horrified to see hands suddenly sprout out from the middle of the creature. With a sickening rip the hands tore the swan open and out stepped a young woman. The swan’s form was now nothing more than a beautiful cloak, which the woman folded with great care and placed on a rock at the water edge.
​The two other swans likewise opened up to reveal two more women, each of whom likewise folded her robe and placed it on the rock. The three women walked away from the lake until they came to a flat piece of ground only a few yards in front of Connor. Each of the women was similar in appearance, with copper skin, thick black hair and dark eyes. Even the curve of breasts and the musculature of limbs were replicated in each of the women. The only difference seemed to be in age, and so Connor knew that the three were sisters.
Before the gaze of the astonished young man the three swan women formed a small circle, facing outwards and clasping each other hands. First they dipped and curtsied, then stood upright and stretched towards the red and purple sky. It seemed to Connor that some invisible force was connecting the three for they moved with such perfect synchronicity: when one bowed, her sisters did the same; when one bent a knee, whilst stretching her arms wide, the movement was perfectly and instantly replicated by her two companions.
Then, with a gleeful yell each released her grip and leapt forward. Mesmerized Connor watched the youngest of the sisters stomp the grass with her naked feet, then slap her hands on the naked flesh of her thighs and belly. Her sisters too were yelling and jumping in a frenzy, their skin glowing scarlet in the dying sun’s light, their hair a wild raven black aurora. As they spun and screeched sweat spun off the tips of their fingers and the point of their breasts and their musky scent filled Connor’s nostrils and mouth, choking him and filling him with terror and lust and white hot sparks that blazed through his groin and his gut until in a sudden rush of madness he scrambled over the rock and ran roaring towards the women.  
With a yelp the maidens ran to the lake. The older two grabbed a hold of their cloaks and in an instance transformed into swans. The younger sister tripped only a few feet from the rock. She cried out for help but her two sister beat their great white wings and took flight. Connor jumped over the fallen woman and snatched her swan cloak. With that he turned and walked all the length of the lake back to his own grand house. Not once did he turn around, for he knew the young woman had no option but to follow him. When he arrived home he went into his hall and walked towards the great hearth were logs blazed and spat. Holding the cloak before the fire he turned and faced the swan maiden.
There she stood in that great hall, with its tapestries and furnishings from all the corners of the world, with a hundred candles glittering and the great oak beams overhead. There she stood naked and defenseless, but no tears spilled from her dark eyes. Instead she stood proud and wary looking first at her cloak and then directly at Connor.
‘I know what you want Connor Quinn,’ she said, ‘And I will be your wife, your willing wife, but only if you do two things for me. You must give up gambling for it is a childish folly and I have sworn never to become the bedmate of a fool or a boy. And you must never bring a member of the O’Brien family into this house, for they are an enemy to me and mine.’
Connor rang for a servant and asked for a bible to be brought for himself and clothing for swan maiden. He swore then to keep his side of the bargain and smiled as he made his pledge. Gambling was a pastime he good easily forgo, and the O’Brien family and Connor’s family had for many centuries been the bitterest of foes and none had ever stepped a foot into the others dwelling.
​So it was that Connor married the swan maiden. After they were wed Connor gave his wife her own chamber that opened onto the great hall. It was only then that she let him know her human name, Beatrice. The chamber contained everything a woman would need for comfort; a great bed, soft chairs, a box of sewing material, a rope to summon a servant at any time of the day or night. There was a large window that looked over the lake, and hanging from a hook on the wall was the beautiful swan cloak. Connor kept to his side of the bargain and his wife to hers and the cloak remained untouched as the months and the years went by.
​Many sages have written and sang and extolled the innumerable virtues that go toward making a marriage successful. None though have ever mentioned the benefits of mistrust and uncertainty. Yet it was these two attributes that helped bring closeness between Connor and his wife. Having committed to sharing a life together they both were not sure what to do next. In the weeks following their wedding they kept a resentful distance from the other. Each assigned malign motives and desires to the other that with every day became blacker in the imagination. When finally they confronted each other it was only to discover that their fears lacked any foundation.
​From that moment they both were more careful and attentive of the other’s needs. One morning Connor came into the hall to find his table had not been set for breakfast. A servant was called for and an explanation demanded. ‘The mistress of the house asked that we lay the Master’s meal out in her chamber’ explained the serving girl.
​Connor went into his wife’s chamber. There they both sat facing each other, a small table between them. They ate a little; they drank a little, and said not a word during the meal. With the meal over Connor attempted to break the uncomfortable silence.
‘If you wish, I could have food put out by the lake for your two sisters.’
‘That pair, they’ve food enough. What they need is a stick across their backs.’
‘You know why. When I needed them most they fled.’
‘Would you rather return to them?’
‘Oh Connor, do you want rid of me now?’
‘No. But I would not have it said that I forced you to live a life filled with sorrow.’
‘And I would not have it said that I broke a pledge.’
‘So you will stay.’
‘I will.’
‘In which case,’ declared Connor with a grin, ‘I will get a stout stick to teach your sisters a lesson.’
Beatrice smiled and shook her head. ‘Oh dear husband, I pity the man who ever tried to hurt me or mine.’ She put her hand on his. Her skin was soft and her grip firm. She kissed Connor on the cheek. ‘If you are free this evening, perhaps you would care to join me for supper.’ Sparks shot through Connor’s belly, and he laughed at his fortune and his folly. ‘Maybe,’ he said and kissed his wife’s hand.
A year after they were wed husband and wife were sat at the breakfast table. The previous twelve months had seen a change in Connor’s fortune. Investments yielded stunning returns, merchants up in Galway City begged his patronage, powerful men took account of his views on the great politics of the state. Good fortune seeped into the very soil he walked on and the air that he breathed. His lake was packed with large and sweet tasting fish, the trees appeared wider and their foliage thicker. There was less sickness amongst his tenants and none could recall when last his crops had been bigger and more abundant.
‘Who knows,’ said Connor, ‘ maybe one day I could regain all the land my family once controlled here in Munster and up in Connacht. It would only be fitting; Queen Medb was my ancestor after all.’
‘That would explain your nose,’ said Beatrice. ‘I thought I had seen it’s like before.’
‘Dear wife, you must be very distracted. Queen Medb lived a thousand years ago.’
‘Was it that long ago? How strange.’
Connor took a bite of meat. His wife frowned, looked at her husband.
‘Husband, I have unexpected news that terrifies me almost as much as it fills me with joy. I have a child in my belly.’
The birth, when it came six months later, was a long and agonizing enterprise. After twelve hours a trembling serving girl was sent with a message to Connor as he paced the great hall. ‘The mistress fears she is dying, and begs you give her a good and Christian burial.’
‘Can I see her? Should I call for her sisters?’
The serving girl curtsied and returned into the mistress’s chamber. The door had no sooner shut than a shriek of pain and rage resounded through the building. The serving girl stepped back into the hall. ‘Begging your pardon Master, but the Mistress says that you need not attend to her yet, nor send for her sisters.’
‘What were her exact words,’ demanded Connor? The girl’s face reddened and she shook like the final leaf on a tree in an autumn storm.
‘Come,’ said Connor gently, ‘a penny for an honest answer.’
‘Well, begging your pardon master but the mistress only shook her head when I asked if you could see her. When I mentioned calling for her sisters, her reply was more loud and fulsome.’
‘Her exact words please.’
‘To be exact she said “My sisters can go to hell, and take the fool that dares consider inviting them.”’ Quickly the girl added; ‘The midwife asked me to say that the mistress’s response shows her strength and resilience.’
Connor laughed in relief and handed the girl a coin.
Beatrice endured ten more hours of pain, stabbing like a blade into womb as her body pushed and kneaded life into the child. Ten hours she suffered as none of her kind had ever suffered before. Ten hours of arduous agonizing journeying into motherhood and womanhood, with death and life alike attending her, each offering peace or punishment as the mood took them. At last a final scarlet stab between her legs and suddenly Beatrice was free of weight and of worry, as the wailing child was placed on her sweat soaked breast. ‘Tell me husband he has a son.’
​It is a rare achievement to balance ambition and contentment, yet for seven years Connor manage to do precisely that. Eighteen months after the birth of his son, Beatrice bore him a daughter. Now Connor had a child to inherit his estate and a child to offer in political marriage. Yet political calculation did not blunt the affection Connor felt for Beatrice and his children. As his income grew, so the great hall filled with the sound of merriment as the children crawled, walked and ran circles around parents and servants.
During summer the family walked the length of lake, taking food and drink to the ancient ruins. At first Connor was afraid to return to those ancient stones. ‘It is important,’ explained Beatrice, ‘that we make that spot ours. My sisters must understand they have no ownership over any of this land. It belongs to you, my husband, and you alone.’
The swans were seen on the first family expidition. They floated on the waters white and magnificent, paralleling the progress of the little group. The oldest child had stopped to look at them. They stopped too, to stare at him with their black eyes. Beatrice had grabbed the boy’s shoulder and hissed at the birds. They flapped their wings and took flight. That was the last time they disturbed the family picnic.
No matter how many times they visited the broken ruins, Connor always began the picnic with the same words. ‘Here is where I first met your mother,’ he would explain to his children. ‘She was dancing.’ Each time he said this he sounded astonished as if only realizing for the first time how blessed he was. Beatrice, for her part, would grasp her husband’s hand and laugh, ‘Oh, grá mo chroí.’  
Exactly seven years after he had first saw his future wife dancing with her sisters on the banks of the lake Connor kissed Beatrice and his children and promised to bring them a little something when he returned in a few days time. It was the season for horse racing, a time when the powerful meet to shake hands, slap backs, cut deals and quietly or boldly – depending on the disposition of the men involved – shape the politic and commerce of the land. Connor never missed a festival and though he never enjoyed a flutter he sponsored a number of celebrated races.
As well as the sports on and off the racetrack a racing festival was (and is to this day) the arena in which all men, from the meanest labourer to the wealthiest banker, could observe whose influence was waxing fat and full and whose influence was on the wane.​Connor’s prestige was clearly on the rise; he was a figure to be observed, pointed at, and, if lucky, win a shake of the hand from. With the last of the day’s meetings finished the great men of the west retired to a tavern, to eat, drink and assess what hand Fortune dealt to each of the day’s players. Connor’s successes that day included an amiable discussion about the sacred and societal importance of marriage with Mayor Lynch of Galway, who after many childless years had recently been blessed with a son. Connor ate well and drank deep.
As the night wore on ever more men packed into the tavern. Candles sputtered and smeared the hot gloom with a thin and smoky light. The air was thick with the reek of horses and earth, of onions and stewed meat. The festive banter was punctuated with laughter and shouts and the occasional thumping of the table. In the midst of all this a cheery voice called out ‘Is Connor Quinn so elevated above us he cannot enjoy a bet on the horses like all us mortal men.’ To which Connor replied equally merry, ‘A drink for that man to dip his tongue in.’ But his heckler was not satisfied with the tankard that was placed in front of him.
​‘In all seriousness Connor Quinn, your behavior is troubling. If the greater can’t spare a coin on chance why should the lesser. If we all followed your example no risks would ever be taken. Nothing ventured as they say and nothing gained. Soon it would all be stagnation from Ballyhannon to Belmullet.’
​‘Of I have taken many a risk in my life and made many a gain as many of these gentlemen will testify. I have more than enough coin and would not take the chance for gain away from others. Indeed happy as I am in life I now extend a drink to everyone in this fine place!’
​‘And doubtless you would ask us all to raise a glass to health and happiness of you and your good estate.’
​‘Not at all. I need no more joy and wellbeing. As for my estate, how could it b e any better. The trees on my land are bigger than houses. So many fish are packed into my lake that you could walk across their backs and never wet the soles of your feet. My home is filled with tapestries from the Indus and beyond, and furnishing inlaid with gold and ivory. My son is as handsome as a prince, my daughter as happy as a princess, and my wife as good and as fair as an angel from heaven.’
​The stranger stood up with a suddenness that knocked his fellow imbibers sideways. ‘Gentleman, listen to the great Connor Quinn. The way he talks you would think he was one with God and our savior. Maybe he should be given an ould bit of mackerel to turn it into a feast for thousands. Or perhaps we could ask him to turn a basin of dishwater into a casket of finest Spanish wine.’
​No one laughed. Not a voice was raised in agreement or dissent. Every man there, from the labourer to the overseas trader, remained silent as Connor stood up and carefully gave his reply. ‘Stranger, if you are as honest a man as you are foul mouthed, you will come to my estate now and see for yourself that I spoke the truth. You will then return to this place and tell these gentlemen that every word I spoke was free of falsehood and exaggeration.’
​‘I accept the challenge. What’s more I will add another round of drinks for these good witnesses.’ With that the stranger took out a purse and spilled gold coin on to a plate. ‘This should keep everyone in good form until I return.’
​Connor and the stranger got up on their horses. As they galloped across the country, trees grabbed at their hats, and hedgerows at their boots. Above them the moon and stars shook and shone as white and bright as swan feathers. It was only when they arrived at Connor’s estate that the two riders allowed their creatures some rest. Trotting along a laneway, Connor gestured to the trees on either side. ‘Big as houses, as I said. And look over there, observe the lake. You can see the backs of the fish glinting in the moonlight.’  
​When they came to the great home, Connor invited the stranger to lay a hand on the stonework and take a look at the turrets and carved figures leering down from above. ‘It would take a morning to walk around this building, and a hundred years of to knock it down.’ The stranger nodded but said not a word.
​Inside, Connor showed the stranger his great furnishings inlaid with precious metals and jewels, the tapestries from the furthest corners of the known world, the hearth open like a vast mouth in which a great yellow and red flame licked and lolled ‘The fire and the candles are always lit, no matter the hour or the season,’ boasted Connor Quinn. The stranger nodded and finally spoke.
‘I admit to being impressed. You spoke the truth my friend.’
Connor gestured to the two chairs by the fire. Between the chairs was a small ornate table, on which Connor placed two glasses and a decanter of whiskey. ‘I am glad to win your approval; you will of course transmit your opinions to the witnesses.’
‘Of course,’ said the stranger with a smile. ‘I give my word as a high ranking member of the ancient and noble O’Brien family.’  
Connor trembled with dread. He tried to speak but his mouth was dry and his tongue swollen and heavy. Unable to breathe he yet forced himself to fill the glasses. With the taste of the whiskey he snapped back into a semblance of composure. Another drink was poured. With a merry ‘Slainte!’ Connor clinked his glass against O’Brien’s. All was not lost, his wife and his children were asleep in their chamber. He need only remove his unwelcome guest as quickly as possible and all would be well.
‘It is well that an O’Brien has visited my home. Our families have spilled too much blood and anger over the centuries. Let us drink to our mutual good fortune and continuing prosperity. Let us also commit ourselves to meeting again at a more hospitable hour.’
Connor stood but the O’Brien remained in his chair. He stretched out his legs, took a sip of his whiskey, gazed at the fire. Finally he turned to look up at Connor. ‘Well I guess I should take my leave now. There is a tavern filled with gentlemen who are awaiting my honest assessment of your possessions. I will, on my word as a gentlemen and an O’Brien, tell them that everything you said was true. That your trees are as big as houses; your lake packed with fish a man could walk across the backs of. I will tell them about your rich furnishings and delightful tapestries. I will tell them about the blaze in your hearth and the glitter of your candles. But I will also make sure to tell them, on my word as a gentleman and an O’Brien, that yours Connor Quinn is the worse hospitality in the whole of Ireland. Never before has my mouth suffered such a brief acquaintance with another man’s uisce beatha.’
Connor sat down again. A true gentleman, he would rather a knife in the belly than such an indictment. Wounds can be recovered from and scars displayed with pride, but a reputation for frugalness in a host is an injury as evil as it is fatal. ‘Ah now O’Brien, you need only have said that you had time enough for a proper welcoming. There is more whiskey in the cabinet over there and some cheese and fruit, though it would be my pleasure to wake the kitchen and have a more substantive supper prepared.’
‘Whiskey and cheese sounds a grand enough supper. Go raibh maith agat.’
The two men ate and drank and drank and ate. Connor kept his voice low and was grateful when the O’Brien follow his example. The whiskey, as whiskey does, induced a conviviality between the two men. Connor wondered why he had not met his guest before, and his guest explained that he had been raised in the court of England. ‘I have returned to oversee my family’s commission to control piracy in Galway Bay. My approach is more one of regulation that eradication. But even in England I heard news of your own improved standing in life. What is the secret to your success’
‘A good and loving marraige,’ declared Connor. ‘Ni ceart go cur le cheile!’
O’Brien raised his glass in agreement, ‘It is very true. Only unity bring strength. But I see you glancing towards that door there. Is that where your wife rests.’
‘My wife and my two children.’
‘Well,’ whispered the O’Brien. ‘Let’s finish the evening soon, and finish it as strong friends.’ He took a packet of cards from his pocket. ‘Let us play a quiet game Connor Quinn, before I go out to tell the world of your honesty and good fortune?’
The guest dealt the cards and the host happily picked up his hand. They play in silence, the only sound in the vastness of the hall the slurp of lips imbibing, the clink of glasses touching, the sigh and snap of cards playing. Connor won a couple of hands; the O’brien likewise. After a while the O’Brien spoke softly. ‘What is a game between friends without a little flutter…?’ Connor agreed and the game began in earnest.
Both gentlemen remained polite and outwardly affable, but it the game had changed into a competition as savage as any battle or politicking. At first the men were equally matched in intellect stamina, but as the whiskey brought weariness and confusion to Connor, the O’Brien became ever more focused and full of vitality. The hours crawled by as Connor first lost his wealth, then his land, then his beautiful furnishings and tapestries. In a last desperate bid to win it all back Connor lost his grand house.  
The O’Brien sat back in his chair and raised a glass to his stupefied opponent. Connor was numbed and shocked at the massive and utter reversal of his fortune. When he heard a door slam he leapt up in terror, grabbed a hold of the O’Brien and dragged him across the hall. ‘To hell with hospitality!’ he roared and threw his enemy out into the cold pre-dawn darkness.
He walked back into the hall, placed a hand on the door of his wife chamber. A great fearful melancholy echoed through his belly and heart. Wiping away tears he opened the door.
​His wife was standing by the open window. Outside the sky was grey and purple. The two children stood in front of their mother. Behind Beatrice stood two woman with feathery capes draped over their shoulders. Connor reached out to his wife, but one of her sisters opened her mouth in a wide terrible grimace and hissed. The other sister took the swan robe from the hook it had rested on untouched for seven years. She placed it on Beatrice’s shoulders. ‘You have no more hold on me,’ wept Connor’s wife. Before his eyes she and her sisters began to mutate into great white birds. As Beatrice’s arms transformed into wings she touch her children and they two began to change.
One by one the five creatures leapt up to the window and flew off into the blood red sky of the new morning. And that was the very final ruin of Connor Quinn.

Lovely review of Painting the tales here… And below a few other comments I have received.

‘Just received this beautiful book in the post, rich in myth, folklore, and nature’s magic. Congratulations, Kate! Thank you for all that you do to keep wonder alive in the world’
Terri Windling.

It’s lovely, and I’m very pleased SUFFOLK is on the cover!
James Mayhew

Katherine Soutar is a prolific and sensitive artist who has been commissioned to supply the cover illustrations for The History Press’s series of Folk Tales and she has now followed the commission with a lovely publication of her work, telling the tale of The Tales. A beautiful treasury of images that reference the stories within, with simple but stylish typography and layout, something to be proud of. Anyone for a good tale?

Robert Hallmann

Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival

I really enjoyed meeting Nikky and being interviewed by her. A lovely human with amazing energy, I look forward to hearing much more of her story in future….


I attended and performed at Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival and created a plenary poem capturing soundbites and the atmosphere. There was an eclectic mix of narrative performance explored through live music, literature and traditional storytelling.

Beyond The Border celebrates the finest musicians and storytellers from Wales and the World, including Sweden, Finland, Italy, India, Belgium, Norway and Palestine….

Expect fables and myths, music and magic, love stories and laughter, fun and games for children and fairy tales for grown-ups, all in the beautiful grounds of our castle by the sea.

I managed to have a chat with legendary storyteller Taffy Thomas MBE, the mysterious illustrator Katherine Soutar and the magical Tinc Y Tannau. Take a listen to the audio interviews, the poem I created and join the conversation…


Photos include Taffy, Katherine, Tinc Y Tannau and the festival…

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Desert ramblings, inspirations and invitations

As some of you may have already noticed I am very fond of Morocco…

Since my first visit in 2015 I have returned many times to this beautiful, vibrant and friendly country. Most often travelling to the deep Sahara in the south to spend time with my Saharaoui friends camping, camel trekking and learning about nomad traditions and culture.

I have also spent time collecting stories, sharing my art and making paintings, sketches and photographs for an illustration project I am working on, which hopefully will one day become a dual language book.

Another abiding passion of mine is the study of natural history. As a child I went everywhere armed with a net, a plastic box and a copy of ‘The young naturalist’in the hope of finding something new I could take home and identify ( my very patient Mum could tell you some stories about my adventures…the wardrobe of flies…the bucket of toads…the paint tin of dragonfly nymphs….I was a one child biblical plague at times!) 

I now take only my camera, which is better for the wildlife, for me and certainly for those I share a house with…and spending so much time in the desert has given me the opportunity to rediscover that childhood joy and wonder at seeing new wild things for the first time. Taking so many photographs has also led to me thinking about them as more than just source material for illustrations or an aid to identifying wildlife or plants and I have become interested in them in their own right. So I was delighted when one of my desert photographs was selected to appear in the beautiful book of Celtic and Arabian stories and photographs produced by the confluence  group. (You can learn more about them here
 It was taken at a nomad camp I visited in Chegaga in April 2017

The book also features my first original story, The fox and the moon, which I wrote after seeing a wild Fennec for the first time.
I love this wild and beautiful place and have enormous respect for the people who live there and know so much about its moods, it’s landscape and its inhabitants large and small. Walking and camel riding through this stunning wilderness then camping under the stars and waking in the soft light of dawn to find the tracks of Jerboa, Fennec fox and scarab criss crossing the dunes until they are smoothed away by the morning breezes is a very special experience.

I wanted to be able to share this with like minded souls so together with my friends there I have set up a small family run desert tour company so we can give people the chance to experience the desert first hand. 

If you would like to travel with us to the desert to share these moments, looking for the flick of a sandfish diving into the dunes, listening to the soft plopping of camel feet across the sand and watching the magic that is the creation of sandbread, at which my friends are experts, you can! 

Go over to to  check out what we can offer. For artists and photographers the desert is an exciting source of inspiration and focus and I am happy to provide art tutorial by prior arrangement, just bring along your sketchbook and sense of wonder.

Painting the Tales, the book has landed! (Well…almost) 

I sometimes google my own name to see if I have been up to anything interesting, or more accurately to see just what info about me is floating around out there in the ether… And that is how I discovered yesterday morning that my first book is now available for pre-order. 
After the mild panic of completing the manuscript and submitting it only a little later than the rather short deadline ( when they asked me how I needed, I blithely told them 3 months, having never written a book before, and they took me at my word…) There has been a month or so of wondering whether I had perhaps imagined the whole thing. But then there it was, on two well known bookselling sites. 
I sat and stared at the screen for a few minutes, zooming in on the word ‘author’ a couple of times and tittering nervously to myself before the fear kicked in… People were actually going to read my writerly scribblings….Was anyone going to like my writerly scribblings? I got out the manuscript ( yes, a printed copy, I am never totally trustful of sticks and clouds and other nature related names for tech storage) fingered it briefly, grimaced, put it away again. I can’t bear to look at the moment. 
So I will wait until June 1st, and read it along with everyone else. In the meantime if you would like to pre-order direct from me please email me
I will sign it for you (and dedicate it too if you like) and the first 100 copies I send out will also include some extra little surprises, 

The Burn

My Son is a writer and was invited to write a piece set in the weirdly marvellous world of Hopeless Maine created by Tom and Nimue Brown. This fiercely visceral and oddly tender tale is the result. I love it. Check out the other fabulous writings on this site and Tom’s brilliant illustrations.

The Hopeless Vendetta

A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the…

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Giving back- working with the Vilostrada foundation


Some of you will know that I spend as much time as I can in the Moroccan Sahara, a place I have come to love very much and been inspired by. I have benefited a great deal both personally and creatively from my time there… 

This is a chance for me to benefit the people there in return.

This mixed media portrait of a little girl who is dear to my heart, Najwa, has been printed as a charity card and is available to buy direct from me.

25% of each sale goes direct to the Vilostrada foundation, who work with nomads in the Moroccan Sahara supporting their way of life and helping provide opportunities for sustainable futures  through their ‘education for life! project.

Here is a link to their blog with a little write up about my involvement.

And a link to their site for more info:

Any remaining monies after costs are paid will go directly to Najwa and her family, this card is all about giving back, every penny will count.

The cards are £3 each plus postage, please contact me to buy by emailing me at with ‘Najwa’ as the subject.

I am looking for other ways to use my skills to make a difference for a people and place that I love. So watch this space xxx

Thank you 🙂🙂

Cover stories – She who knits the world’s green cloth

The story behind the cover art for Ruth Marshall’s Limerick Folk tales

‘A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape survivor, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features’

When I came across this passage in the Limerick folk tales text I knew she had to be the subject of my cover illustration. She is every woman. She is also for me an image of my mother, who I remember knitting in the evenings when i was small, her long dark hair in bunches and her feet folded neatly underneath her in an armchair. That subtle but continuous clicking of the needles as she knitted for my younger sisters. I never became a knitter, my skills lie in weaving my dreams in pencils and paint but I still find the image of a woman knitting an evocative one and the idea of there being so much power in such a gentle process is one I am incredibly drawn to. As I dreamed and doodled, wondering how my knitting goddess should look, I received a message from the books author expressing the hope that I would choose this story for the cover image…

For me words conjure images which in turn conjure words… and so I was also  reminded of this beautiful poem by Tom Leonard

In Hospital

I like seeing nurse Frieda knitting
As I like watching my wife knitting
As I like watching my mother knitting
Though she was more of a dabbler
(Plain and purl, plain and purl)

It’s not

‘Women being in their place’


The future, knitting the future
The present peaceful, quiet
As if
The same woman knitting
For a thousand years

As soon as I mentioned on social media that I was interested in photos of people knitting to use as resource material the response was amazing, I received dozens of pictures of exquisitely busy hands and although none that were quite what I was after, I suddenly became aware of the love and enthusiasm so many felt for this gentle art… I did find some very evocative pictures of ‘knitting Madonnas’ on the net though and knew I was looking for something that had the same sort of feel…

Then I came across this image below on my wanderings. Something about this pose, the shape of the face and the absorbed quality of the whole reminded me of the paintings of the knitting Madonnas I had encountered earlier and made it a perfect starting point


My knitter went through a few different ideas about hair…I have a bit of a thing for hair and what it does in my images matters very much to me…


In this image it needed to float about her somehow as if she were sitting below water and it just grew and grew until it became a very dominant feature, but that worked well when the rest of the painting was done as it was a great foil to the potentially overwhelming greenness of the whole.

The animals emerged from the background as I began to paint, the whale being the only one I had planned in my head before starting and the deer, frog and butterfly emerging last. They grew from the cloth as I painted in almost the same way they grew from her knitting.



 Here is Ruth’s full introduction to the knitter and her story…

Áine is one of the oldest of the gods. She was/is a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the land of Munster was her sacred ground. She oversaw the fertility, prosperity of the land and its inhabitants. Tuatha Dé Danaan means the people of the goddess Danu, and some scholars claim that Áine may be the same as Ana, Anu, or Danu. Perhaps she was the mother of this race of gifted craftspeople, seen as gods, and later to become the Sidhe or Fairies. Hers was the sovereignty of Munster, hers to confer on any man who sought to rule there. It is easy to see Áine as the sun, the light that sparkles on the waters of Lough Gur, the enlivened air. Her name means ‘delight, joy, radiance, harmony, truth, brightness’.
The wild herb, meadowas Áine’s plant. Also known as ‘queen of the meadow,’ meadowsweet has healing powers, containing in its leaves a substance that relieves headaches, inflammation and many other complaints. Its flowers are light and airy, and as the name suggests, they fill the air with their scent in late summer, the time of harvest.

A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape surviver, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features.



She Who Knits the World’s Green Cloth

Beneath the enchanted waters of Lough Gur, there grows an ancient and enormous tree, concealed beneath a green cloth. Beneath the green cloth (brat ‘uÁine) a woman sits at the base of the tree. She is knitting with a green yarn, the fabric of the world, and will continue to do this until the end of the world, or until the enchantment on the lake is broken. Once every seven years, when the waters of the lake recede, the tree and its covering are revealed.
One day when the waters of the lake were low, there came a horseman riding by. Seeing the green cloth, so fine and beautiful, he snatched it up, revealing the knitting woman beneath it. She cried out to the waters of the lake:

Awake, awake, thou silent tide!
From the Dead Woman’s land a horseman does ride,
From my head the green cloth snatching.

As she spoke, the waters of Lough Gur began to rise. The rider kicked his horse into action and raced off, but the waters came leaping and foaming behind him. Horse and rider were swept into the lake and were lost beneath its waves. The green cloth slowly drifted down through the water until it came to rest once more over the tree and the knitting woman.
Some say that had the cloth been stolen, the fertility of the land would have been destroyed.
In our own time, where soil and crop fertility is sorely threatened, not by horsemen riding by, but by man-made causes ranging from artificial fertilisers, the death of bees, genetic manipulation, and climate change, perhaps we should all be taking up our knitting needles and green yarn to help ‘knit the world better!’ Áine urges us to join her, to do what we can to re-create the green fabric of life.
Today there is a large stone called the Cloch a bhile, which means the ‘stone of the tree’, not far from the great stone circle at Lough Gur.

and finally…

This is cover story was one where the collaboration in spirit between author and artist was instant, Ruth and I have never met and until I started to write this blog had only had a few small exchanges with each other, but she has sent me this contribution which I am pleased to share with you here:

Knitting the world better – a brief personal history in wool and words

I have been a sporadic knitter all my life, my most recent return to knitting inspired partly by my Son’s requests for useful items and love tokens for his girlfriend.

Then on a visit to family in Scotland I saw an exhibition of Donna Wilson’s quirky knitted work in Glasgow’s Lighthouse gallery. Odd creatures and landscapes included the squirrel-fox and trees. I wrote in the visitor’s book, “Knit the World Better!” When I got home, this became a slogan I signed my emails with.

I waxed lyrical about wool as metaphor for the creative process. I got smelly Shetland fleeces from an artist on the Burren, carded and spun them into yarn, in the same way that I draw ideas down from the clouds and spin them into stories to tell. I knitted sheelagh-na-gigs and gnomes. I gave workshops on ‘how to knit the world better for ourselves and others’. I found traditional stories that featured balls of yarn, seamless garments, knitting women. On the isle of Colonsay, I heard about the Witch of Jura, who could draw any man into her arms by winding up her magical ball of wool.
Some of these woolly tales turn up in my books for The History Press’s Folk Tales series.
In Clare Folk Tales, I included the story of an old woman, angry to be disturbed at her knitting, who pierced the ground with her knitting needle, causing a spring to burst forth, that became Inchiquin lake. A warning: you should never disturb a woman at her knitting!
Researching for Limerick Folk Tales, I found reference to a knitting woman who sits at the base of a tree submerged beneath Lough Gur, at the heart of a magical sacred landscape. I thought of her as “She who knits the earth’s green cloth” and I identified strongly with her at this time when we must be so conscious to reweave the threatened web of life, the torn fabric of society. When the text of the book was finished, I drew so many version of this image. I knew what story I wanted to see featured on the cover, and requested that Katherine portray “She Who Knits”. I knew she would do this beautifully, and I was not disappointed, she had already found the passage and become enchanted with it.

My own knitting story continues: there is an endless thread, a red thread I like to think, that connects us, and leads the way forward.
I will always welcome more stories, from anywhere around the world, that feature knitters, wool, yarn, etc.

Ruth Marshall 2017

Ruth also sent me several lovely poems, one of which I would like to share with you, enjoy.


At sixteen
I wore a purple wool jumper
The way Pablo Neruda wore his hand knit socks
With a reverence
for the unknown hands that clicked the needles
And a love for the rich deep colour of the wool
From the purple sheep that dwelt in the fairyland dusk
I witnessed only through the haze of smoke.

And there was no risk of saving it for best
For it was all I could bear to wear
for months
while the sleeves wore thin
and my mother sewed leather patches
on the elbows for me
just as she sewed the hems
I had no patience to take up
on skirts I made from curtains snatched at jumble sales.

I knitted socks and gloves,
colourful and Fair-Isled, on four needles
at the interminable meetings of my twenties
in wholefood shops, back rooms and basements
through talk of poetry, brown rice and disarmament;
and sweaters for my lover,
full of spells and symbols,
through northern winters warmed by blackcurrant wine,
that his next girlfriend wore
with love.

By the time my son arrived
The auntie who knitted shawls
Fine enough to pull through a wedding ring
Had knobbly twigs for hands and clouded eyes.
Gifted a lambskin for his bed,
I made vests, jumpers, hats, shoes, blankets
And wrapped him in the warmest woolly love.

Though moths and time unravel the finest work
I have learned the magic that transforms
the dung-caked fleece to pure cream yarn.
Now, when I have carded, spun and washed,
I knit my own tiny woollen sheep.

Ruth Marshall, October 2003 : “Ruth Marshall Writes” on Facebook
Email: ruth.a.marshall at

Cover stories – The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers



The illustration above is part of the repeating owl pattern on the famous owl service dinner set, examples of which are rather rare…

When I started to read the manuscript for Snowdonia Folk Tales I did something I often do if the author is someone I am in contact with and sent Eric a message asking if he had any preferences as to what the cover story might be. He was busy and didn’t reply for some time.

In the meantime I read through the book and found the story of Blodeuwedd, one that I already had a familiarity and fascination with as I had read The Owl service by Alan Garner when I was young. I also watched the excellent TV adaptation, scripted by Garner himself, when it was repeated in 1978, I would have been 15 then and at an age when it was to make a lasting impression on me.

Her story is of course part of the wonderful epic tale of the Mabingion, but I am not going to go into that here. This is her story.

I wanted to work with this story very much, I felt a connection with not only the woman of flowers but also my own teenage self that could be expressed through this image.

I started to make sketches, trying to work out how to depict the flower and owl aspects of a character I felt was more sinned against than sinning. This was a grown woman released upon the world fully formed and filled with desires and feelings she had no experience of coping with as she had not been through the process of growing from a child to an adult. A woman created for a purpose she had no choice about. She was made from wild things and then expected to be tame.

While I was trying to find the face of my woman of flowers Eric replied to my message, suggesting her story would be a good one to choose. I love it when this happens, and it has happened several times with this series.

I didn’t want to make an image melding the woman and owl aspects together into one character. I had seen many of these and somehow they seemed a little brutal to me, I almost felt that although her transformation is a punishment it is also the moment she is set free, back into the wild and able to express herself without regret.

The fact that she becomes an owl particularly, a creature throughout history and across many cultures regarded with fascination and awe seemed important to me.

Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs held about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over many generations.

Interestingly the Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak. So Blodeuwedd was not the only transformation of woman to owl in folklore.

In the end I decided to have the owl blending with the background behind Blodeuwedd, a fate that awaits her in the future as she wakes in her bower and looks out directly at us with eyes that although they have only just opened on the world, are full of self awareness. One day she will return to her woodlands as owl, but now she is about to enter our world, one whose rules she does not know and will never really understand.

The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers.

Retold by Eric Maddern for Folk tales of Snowdonia

At first it seemed there would be no thwarting Arianrhod’s third curse. But Gwydion knew Lleu would never be a fully initiated man unless he had a wife. So he brought Math into the plan and together they spiralled deep into their most powerful magic. They gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet, never usually found together, and arranged them just so. For three days and nights they chanted powerful spells and incantations. On the last morning, beneath the heap of flowers, lit by rays from the rising sun, there she was… the naked body of a young woman, her eyes opening for the first time. Lleu was overjoyed with his bride and that night, after the wedding feast, they slept together. Because she was made of flowers she was called Blodeuedd, the Woman of Flowers.

It could have been so simple. Lleu, the son of the Sun, married Blodeuedd, daughter of the Earth. He with eyes shining like the sun on pools of water, his back straight as a sunbeam; she as beautiful as the flowers of the Earth, singing songs to the sky. But life rarely is that simple. In time a cloud crossed their skies and their lives twisted into tragedy.

Math gave Lleu the cantref of Ardudwy (stretching from Maentwrog toward Dolgellau) to be his lands. There he and Blodeuedd set up court in Mur Castell (known now as Tomen y Mur) and all seemed well. But Blodeuedd wasn’t like other women. She’d heard about the laws of the land but she’d not grown into them. And though Lleu was kind to her and she liked him well enough, he never excited her. What she loved most was to go into the wildwood, to dance and sing. For at heart she was a tree spirit, a flower maiden. She left running court affairs to her senior women. Like a wild child she was more interested in mischief and play.

One day, when Lleu was away visiting Math and Gwydion, she heard the sounds of barking dogs, whinnying horses and shouting men as a hunt rode by her hall. The energy of the hunt excited her. Something about the raw, wild animality of it all set her pulse racing. After the hunters had felled the stag and baited the dogs she sent a messenger to invite them to dine with her. ‘After all,’ she said to her maidservants, ‘It would be bad manners not to.’

The leader of the hunt – Gronw Pebyr, Gronw the Radiant – was Lord of Penllyn, a cantref which stretched from the mighty mountain Cadair Idris in the south, to the head of Llyn Tegid in the east and right up to the sharp-peaked Cnicht in the north. To the west Gronw’s land adjoined Ardudwy, Lleu’s province. Perhaps Gronw had not noticed when he crossed the border; perhaps there was something fated in the way the stag led them to Mur Castell.

Inside the hall Gronw took off his boots and riding jacket, loosened his shirt ties and sat by the rough-hewntable with a leather mug of mead. Blodeuedd admired his powerful build, his thick beard, his laughing brown eyes. As the fire crackled and the candles flickered all the others disappeared in a buzz of merry chatter. Gronw’s eyes widened at the wonder before him. The woman of flowers. He’d heard of her beauty but in the flesh she was utterly entrancing. Her eyes, green as acorns, bewitched him. Her broom-yellow hair, loose over her shoulders, longed to be stroked. Her skin, creamy as meadowsweet, ached to be kissed. He was on fire. With no thought of consequences he reached out, drawn towards her delicate nectar like an intoxicated bee. Suddenly he was on his knees like a priest before his goddess. And she… said yes. She chose him, this half-wild man of beast and forest, and invited him into her bed.

They gave in to their passions all night long. He taught her so much of lovemaking. She showed him so much exquisite beauty. The next day in a daze he said he should leave but she said no, stay. His men long gone he stayed for a second divine night. But on the third day at last they talked of consequences. How can we live without this passion? We must be together. But what of Lleu? Come away with me. But he will seek us out. So he must be killed. That cannot be easily done. He is under a powerful protection. Find out the secret of his death. I will do it. Whatever it takes. For you…

Soon after Lleu returned to Mur Castell. But that night Blodeuedd was quiet and withdrawn. ‘What’s the matter, beloved?’ asked Lleu. ‘I’ve been worrying about you,’ said Blodeuedd softly, ‘and what would happen if you died.’ Lleu laughed. ‘Don’t worry about that. Unless God takes me I cannot be easily killed.’ ‘That’s a relief,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘But, there is a way, is there? Perhaps you should tell me so I can be sure it doesn’t happen. After all, a wife should guard her husband’s safety.’ Lleu smiled, touched by his wife’s care. ‘Well it’s all extremely unlikely,’ he said. ‘I can be killed neither inside nor outside, neither on foot nor on horseback.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘Sounds impossible.’ ‘Not only that,’ added Lleu, starting to enjoy the impossibility of it all, ‘I could only be killed by a spear that has been one year in the making, and then only on holy days.’ ‘So… is there a way someone could overcome all this?’ asked Blodeuedd, reaching out and stroking Lleu’s arm. Lleu paused, looked at his sweetheart, took a deep breath and confided to her his deepest secret. ‘If there was a thatched bathtub by the river, and if I was to stand with one foot on the side of the tub and the other on the back of a billy-goat, and if someone were to strike me with that year-in-the-making spear, then and only then would I die.’ ‘Good,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘That’s not going to happen is it!’

But the next day she sent a message to Gronw to start work on the spear. For his part he felt as if he had drunk a witch’s brew. He had only once choice. He’d never spent a year making a spear before. It would be the spear of spears. Taken from an ancient, bleeding yew, from a branch that was straight and true, Gronw whittled it down to the heart, hardened it in the fire, fletched it and tipped it with poison. After a year he sent the message: ‘I’m ready.’ Blodeuedd, for her part, had arranged for a thatched bathhouse to be built and had alerted the nearby goatherd.

Lleu was riding home from Caer Dathyl along the northern bank of the Glaslyn River. His horse knew the path and the reins lay slack in his hands. He came to a ford and the horse plunged in, the swirling river up to his boot heels. On the other bank Lleu glimpsed a smooth, rounded standing stone he knew well. Pryderi’s tombstone. He’d heard the story of Gwydion’s single combat with the Lord of the South, though not from Gwydion himself. Occasionally he caught twisted mutterings about Gwydion, oaths carelessly uttered by those who’d lost loved ones in the battle. ‘All for that stupid brother of his,’ he once heard. ‘Poor Goewin,’ some of the women had said. Gwydion might be a clever wizard and a good storyteller but he was not liked by everybody. He’d been a good uncle to Lleu, though, helpful and loving. He’d taught him secrets he’d revealed to no other man. Maybe Gwydion was making up for his dark past in his love for Lleu.

Blodeuedd greeted Lleu with a smile and a gentle kiss. Soon he was busy giving orders to his men and later telling Blodeuedd the news from Math’s court. He didn’t notice anything different about her. That wasn’t unusual. But inside Blodeuedd was different. For the first time in her fragile existence she was about to act. She was going to do something mighty. A chill breeze made the soft petals round her heart flutter and tremble. All the pieces of her plan were in place. Gronw had been told. Tomorrow was the day.

In the morning she squeezed Lleu’s hand and said: ’It’s midsummer’s day. Let’s go down to the river. I have a treat for you! Let me bathe you in my new bath house.’ It sounded good. Lleu was tempted. Besides, he liked to humour his wife. As they walked down the earthen path birds sang, the summer flowers bloomed. A thatched roof perched over a new wooden tub full of steaming water. Her maidens had done as she’d asked. ‘Come,’ she said, helping him to slip off his clothes. With a deep sigh he sank into the fragrant water. She soaped his muscled back and shoulders, washed his hair. Lleu dissolved in the pleasure of it, never for a moment suspecting a thing.

Blodeuedd didn’t fully comprehend what she was doing. She only knew that a strange memory of overwhelming desire was driving her on. She turned and nodded to the old goatherd who tethered a shaggy, long-horned billy by the side of the bathhouse. When Lleu was finished he stepped dripping out of the water and wrapped a cloth around his waist. ‘Look, a goat!’ she said. ‘What did you say about standing on a bath and a goat? How funny! You could do it now. If it happened once it would never happen again. But how? You’d slip wouldn’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Lleu, entranced by the water, sun, flowers, her laughing voice, not hearing the bees buzzing around her heart… ‘Like this.’

He rose up, one foot on the edge of the tub, the other, unsteady at first, on the back of the goat. She reached out her hand to steady him. Slowly he straightened to his full height. He took a deep breath. Through the oaks a shaft of sunlight fell upon him. Fresh, clean and invigorated he stood tall, let go of her hand and spread his arms. ‘There, you see!’

A wren hopping in a hawthorn was chirping fiercely. A shadow fell across the sunbeam. Too late he saw the spear speeding towards him, sneering, heart-hungry and shaggy with barbs. Too late, too late. It pierced skin, flesh, bone, heart… He crumpled and for a moment was suspended in the air. Then a dark shape fell upon him with wings spread wide. Claws sank into his shoulders, his body was ebbing away, shrinking, failing, falling apart. The great bird flapped its wings once, twice, three times – as if lifting the Earth – then flew off through the trees and was gone.

She stood. Where was he? Was this what Death means? Not even a warm hand gone cold. Just emptiness, a space. What was this in the corner of her eye? She wiped away a tear and looked up. A dark, raging passion was running towards her. Ah yes, this was why. This was what it was for. He swept her up in his arms.

Gronw the Radiant and Blodeuedd, Woman of Flowers, went to Lleu’s Hall and that night they slept together. The next day Gronw took possession of Lleu’s land so that Ardudwy and Penllyn were under his control. For many weeks Gronw and Blodeuedd enjoyed being together. But as the weeks stretched into months a gnawing feeling grew in Gronw. He knew this couldn’t last. He had murdered a man, a lord no less and one beloved by two powerful men. Sooner or later they would be on his trail to exact revenge.

When Gwydion heard what had happened he set out to find his nephew. He wandered wide until he came to a house in Arfon where he heard from a swineherd about a sow that left her pen every morning and ran swiftly off. ‘No one can catch her,’ he said, ‘No one knows where she goes.’ ‘Wait for me in the morning,’ said Gwydion. At daybreak he was there and followed the sow briskly up the Nantlle valley. She stopped under an oak tree and began to eat. When Gwydion got closer he realised to his dismay that she was devouring rotting flesh and maggots. He looked up into the tree and in the topmost branches spied an eagle. It did not look well. When it ruffled its feathers rotting flesh and maggots fell to the ground, so sustaining the sow. He sensed this bird was none other than Lleu, transformed and barely alive. So he sang an englyn, a powerful magical spell, and the eagle dropped half way down the tree. He sang a second and it came into the lower branches. Finally a third englyn brought the bird before his feet. And there, with his magic wand, he turned it back into Lleu. But Lleu on death’s door. He knelt down, scooped him up and carried him home. It took Gwydion a whole year, using all his healing powers, to bring Lleu back to health again. And when he did they knew the first thing they must do was to punish Gronw and Blodeuedd. Lleu wanted to take on Gronw. Gwydion said he’d deal with the Flower Maiden.

When Blodeuedd and her maidens saw Gwydion approaching Mur Castell they took off for the mountain. But the maidens were so fixed on looking back at their pursuers that they didn’t see where they were going and fell into a lake. All were drowned and the lake is still known as Llyn y Morynion, ‘The Lake of the Virgins’. Blodeuedd herself, however, did not meet this fate. To her pleading for mercy Gwydion said: ‘I will not kill you. You came from Nature and to Nature you shall return. I shall transform you into a bird. But a bird that dares not show its face in daylight for fear of being mobbed by other birds. All for the shame you brought upon Lleu’. With a sweep of his wand Gwydion turned Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced owl. And so is the owl still called today.

Gronw Pebr was shocked to hear that the man he thought he’d killed was after him. He fled to Penllyn. When Lleu caught up with him Gronw offered land and gold in recompense, but Lleu was not interested. ‘You must stand in the same place I stood,’ he said, ‘and allow me to throw a spear at you.’ Gronw tried to persuade one of his retinue to take the blow for him, but not one of them would. As a result they became ‘One of the Three Disloyal Warbands of Britain.’ So the two men went to the banks of the Cynfael River and Gronw stood where Lleu had been. At the last minute Gronw said: ‘Since I acted through the deceit of a woman, please, in God’s name, let me put that stone between me and the blow.’ And Lleu said he could. So Gronw lifted a huge stone and crouched behind it. Then Lleu, the Fair One with the Deft Hand, took aim and threw the spear, straight as a beam of light. It seared through stone and flesh, bone and heart. Gronw Pebr, Gronw the Radiant, Lord of the Beasts and Wildman of the Woods, lay dead, killed by the Lord of Light. The stone with the hole lies there to this day and is known as Llech Gronw, Gronw’s Stone.

As for Lleu he took back his lands and, according to the tale, after Math’s death became Lord of Gwynedd and ruled over the country well. And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.

My thanks to Eric for allowing me to reproduce this story

You can find more info about the work of Eric Maddern here and here

And more about the history press folktales series here:


Cover Stories – John the Painter


There have been a few occasions that on my first read through of a text, something will jump out at me immediately and with such force that I know it will be the cover even though I have yet to read the rest and I have not even started to make notes. Ceredigion was one of these… When I came across this paragraph in the tale of John the Painter I was transfixed.
“And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?”
She seemed to be looking at me out of the page already… But how she should be framed eluded me for a while… I didn’t want John in the picture because in this context we are John, under her appraising eye. I found some mention in the text of the Mari Lwyd, and although the natural home of the grey mare is not really Ceredigion, I felt that she too could go wherever she pleased and was perfect company for a Welsh queen of fairy folk.

I have always been fascinated by the Mari Lwyd as an object and a tradition and even contemplated making myself a mini one out of a sheep skull I found (I might do it yet! )

To decorate and parade something so resonant with thoughts of death and decay as a skull seems to speak to many of our most ancient fears and desires and there are also many deities in the pantheon of old gods associated with horses including Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and fertility and the strong connection between Rhiannon and horses in the Mabinogion.

dark mischief and the turn of the year seem twinned in so many ways too.

In Wales the fair folk, or Tylwth Teg ride out on horses in procession, bestowing gifts on those they favour that will always vanish if spoken of. So here they are together, the grey mare and her queen, as enigmatic as ever, just as we will always want them to be…


The Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with coloured ribbons and bells and white sheets fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying it. The eye sockets are often filled with bottle-ends and the lower jaw is often spring-loaded, so that the Mari’s operator can snap it at passersby. During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs in a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with insulting verses. This generally occurred around new year and was sometimes associated with wassailing customs at that time of year.

The song of the Mari Lwyd (translation)

Well, gentle friends
Here we come
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To sing.

If we may not have leave,
Then listen to the song
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving

We have cut our shins
Crossing the stiles
To come here
To come here
To come here

If there are people here
Who can compose englynion
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

if you would like to listen to the song in it’s original form you can find it here

the Mari Lwyd I based my illustration on in glorious action here…

The tradition declined in the early 20th century but has recently been revived in many parts of Wales, including Ceredigion, which incorporated ‘The world’s largest Mari Lwyd’ into it’s millennium celebrations

It has been suggested that it was the the Welsh Methodist revival that contributed to the decline of both the Mari Lwyd and a number of other Welsh folk customs. In 1802, the harpist Edward Jones of Merioneth published a book in which he lamented the destructive impact that Christian preachers were having on Welsh folk customs, which they were criticising as sinful. In his view, “the consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the World, is now becoming one of the dullest”. Reflecting such a view, in 1852 the Reverend William Roberts, a minister at Blaenau Gwent condemned the Mari Lwyd and other related customs as “a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies… I wish of this folly, and all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and antiquary.”
Long live the Mari Lwyd I say…

and now the Story,

John the painter – shared with the kind permission of Ceredigion author Peter Stevenson

In Aberaeron around the 1860s, there lived a tall gangly young man, a loafer, a dreamer, a bit of a painter, by name John Davies. He had lost his job as a carpenter, but fancied he could paint walls and furniture as easily as canvases. He was cheerful and enthusiastic and had a high opinion of his artistic talent, for confidence is often given as compensation to those with limited ability. But John was touched with genius. He could play the flute, he could play Mozart, Min Mair, and the Witches from MacBeth, he was loved at the local twmpaths. Play music and you’ll always have friends and food, but John was happier chasing squirrels to steal their fur for his brushes.
He was painting the Vicarage at Nantcwnlle near Llangeitho, when he was sent the nine miles to Aberaeron to buy provisions. After filling his rucksack he set off back with dusk approaching, making sure he had some bread in his pocket to appease the fairies should he encounter them. Instead of following the Aeron, he cut over the hill to Cilcennin to save a couple of miles. He thought to stop for a beer at the Commercial but knew the locals would ask him to play his flute, so he wound his weary way till he came to the Rhiwlas Arms, where the locals recognised him and invited him to play airs in exchange for drinks. By the time he’d played Ar Hyd y Nos and Glan Meddwdod Mwyn over and over, it was twilight and he was a little merry and remembering why he preferred painting. He set off, wobbling gently, and as soon as the light of the pub was behind him, the darkness hit him. It was as dark as a cow’s stomach, the darkness you only find in Ceredigion, and he could barely see the road in front of him. A ghost owl flew over his head and his heart skipped a beat. A fox leapt out in front of him and met his gaze with yellow eyes before loping away, more frightened than John. He knew where he was, up on the moor road leading to Nantcwnlle, and he was looking for the light of Peggi Ty-clottas to guide him, old Peggi’s house, the only house on the moor. John made for the light, but found himself in a bog, and the water seeped through the eyeholes in his boots. He waded on and followed the light. It seemed to be moving in a circle and jumping occasionally. When he came close he could see the light was a fairy ring. Every bone in his body told him to turn, but his heart pulled him inside the ring, and there they were, dancing ladies, almost the size of himself, all so beautiful, wearing white dresses, whirling in a circle, and one took him by the hand and he joined the corelw and he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl who had taken his hand, and he danced as never before, forgetting that everyone laughed at his awkward gangly movements, for now he believed he was Nureyev, and he was so besotted with the fair face of his companion that he hadn’t noticed the dancing had stopped.
The air was still. There was a smell of honeysuckle and bindweed. All the ladies were standing, breathing elegantly while John was perspiring and panting. And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?” John pulled his flute from his pocket and played airs from every land, from the Bonny Bunch o’ Roses to the Banks o’ the Bann. No one moved, no one smiled, and no one danced. “Have I displeased you, ma’am? Didn’t you like my playing?” The Queen spoke “Those are not our tunes. We are Welsh fairies.” So John broke into Owen Alaw and the ladies began to whirl and caper, and when he finished, he asked for a beer, and the laughter stopped. “Oh not again,” thought John. The Queen spoke icily, “We are teetotal.” Well, John played music all that night and the fair folk danced while the Queen watched. She spoke, “Mortal Man, you have pleased us. Take what you wish from us.” John, quick as a jack-the-lad, took hold of the hand of the fairy lady who had been dancing with him and asked for her hand in marriage. The Queen agreed, providing they return to Trichrug Hill once a year to play. John agreed, and they sealed their love with a kiss and they were about to taste each others lips when
“Is that you, John Davies? You good-for-nothing loafer.” It was old Peggi Ty-clottas from the cottage who’s light he had been looking for. She had heard the music and the dancing and seen the light, and she thought it was a corpse candle come to tell her someone was about to die. So she took a candle, and she found him, John Davies, sitting beneath a tree playing his flute, with soggy feet and a heavy backpack. He looked angry. “You’ve spoiled everything. Everything. I had a bargain. I nearly had a wife.”
Peggi took him by the hand and led him to her home, muttering, “Come on, Johnny, it’ll be alright.” From that day on he played for every dance and gathering, and told everyone who would listen that he was flautist to the fairies and almost took one for his wife. Most people just smiled and said, “Poor John. Poor long legged, gangly John.”