Life and Traditions in Rural Wales

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Article by J. Geraint Jenkins in World Conference on Records, 1980

Life and Traditions in Rural Wales[edit | edit source]

“The study of any area which has had a long history of human settlement shows quite clearly that the cultural landscape contains many elements besides those associated with the present-day life of the inhabitants. The cultural landscape of such an area has been compared with an ancient manuscript that has been written over on several occasions, yet parts at least of the different writings can still be made out at the present time. Much of the landscape of a long settled country like Wales is thus a veritable palimpsest (a re-used parchment manuscript) of culture.”1

The keynote to a study of rural Wales is the living past, which still exerts its influence on the daily life of the people. Many features in the cultural landscape and in the social life of Welsh countrymen are of great antiquity. The form of settlement, for example, may be traced back to the tribal system of the Middle Ages; and although the scattered nature of the habitat may be due in part to topographical, climatic, and economic factors, in many parts of Wales it cannot be explained without reference to a system of divided inheritance that characterized the society of medieval Wales.

From the earliest times the social order in Wales, as elsewhere, was bound up with the division and occupation of the land. The laws of the medieval king Hywel Dda depict a semi-nomadic people with strong tribal affinities, practicing a pastoral economy. From the eleventh century the numerous Welsh princes attempted to settle these nomadic pastoralists in permanent homesteads. The unit of landholding in medieval Wales was that of a gwely (“bed”), which was an association of people bound together by blood relationship. They acted together as a family for mutual protection and support, and each individual shared in the common property of his clan. The position of the individual within the gwely depended not on his contract but on consanguinity; and his rights, duties, and responsibilities were determined by his birth. A permanent base in the form of a family dwelling was set up. Small plots adjacent to the dwelling were enclosed for crop growing, while rather larger enclosures for herding animals were to be found farther away from the homestead. As time progressed, the existing land was subdivided among the kin group, for on the death of a head of family his wealth did not descend to his eldest son but was divided equally among all his sons and, after their day, among the grandsons. When the grandsons were all dead, a final division took place among the great-grandsons, and fresh family groups were thus formed. The continued subdivision of property meant smaller and more scattered holdings, and this resulted in much confusion.

The pattern of settlement that this medieval system of inheritance brought into being is often quite recognizable in rural Wales today, for hamlets of scattered farms are typical of many districts. In medieval Wales each homestead was called a tyddyn, and in the history of the countryside the tyddyn, which is synonymous with a small holding, has been of considerable importance. The medieval laws, more than any other factor, contributed to the existence of small farm units in rural Wales, more especially in river valleys. Uplands and moors were widely used in the Middle Ages for summer grazing; with increasing demand for land, especially in the early nineteenth century, many of these hafodai (“summer dwellings”) became permanent farmsteads.

During that period, too, much of the common land was enclosed, and peasant families set up tŷ unnos(“one-night houses”) on the previously unoccupied land. The custom was that if a house of turf was built in a single night and smoke was seen emanating from the chimney at dawn, then the occupier of that temporary dwelling had a legal right to the homestead. An ax thrown from the house marked the extent of an enclosure around the homestead. In time the claims of the occupier were consolidated, and a stone dwelling was constructed to replace the temporary tŷ unnos. In upland districts today may be found the dispersed settlement par excellence, with small holdings scattered evenly over the land.

The existence of a scattered habitat and of so many small farms in rural Wales has had a profound effect both on the social life and on the material culture of Wales. Rural society of the recent past, its character, and daily life were closely associated with the distribution and with the history of settlement. Although with the passing of the centuries wars, conquests, and the total replacement of the old tribal system of inheritance have taken place, many aspects of that chapter in the economic and social history of Wales have had far-reaching effects. The past exists in the very nature of the settlement pattern: in the small, irregularly shaped fields surrounding a simple homestead. It persists in the names given to those fields, which indicate that they were named by the occupants of a single farm rather than by a community from a fixed village center. Each farm has its Field-in-front-of-the-Home and its Hay Field; many have New Field and Mountain Field, signifying a stage in land tenure when the poorer wasteland was incorporated into the farm.

In a less tangible form the medieval inheritance expressed itself in the whole social life of country areas, in the customs and in the character of the people. As in medieval times, most farms in Wales are family farms, and even today the farms of close relatives of the family may be found nearby. Just as consanguinity was all-important in tribal society, so too are blood relationship and the relationship by marriage highly important in the stratification of present-day society and dominate the social behavior of the group. The loyalty of any member to his particular family group is always evident, however far removed in degree of relationship he my be. The knowledge of genealogies and the recognition of distant kinsfolk symbolize the importance of family relationships and their part in ordering the lives of the individual members of the group.

In medieval Welsh society the law of civil obligation meant that coaration and cooperation were considered to be the duty of the agriculturist, a duty that survived until recently, when coaration was widely practiced and the co-ownership of an implement by a number of neighboring farms was common. At harvest time, especially during hay making, and at potato planting or lifting, cooperation was very widely practiced, and the individual farmer considered it his duty to help his neighbor, knowing that this favor would be repaid when the need arose.

Strangers who visit parts of rural Wales are often impressed by the great deal of kindness, hospitality, and welcome they receive. This again is but a reflection of the tribal past and owes its origin to the keeping of an open house for those in need.

Although in areas of dispersed settlement no village as such may be found, the very way of life and the whole social atmosphere of a district or locality are such that a kind of family feeling, an idea of common destiny, and a similarity of purpose in life exist between each family and the whole of the locality in which that family lives. Rural Wales, the land of local cultures, supports a society as tribal in its organization today as that of the early inhabitants described in the Welsh laws.

The relative isolation of many rural areas from the outside world and the distribution of the homesteads as holdings separate and apart have tended to emphasize individuality of character in members of society. When folk forgathered, it was not on the village green at noon or in the village tavern in the evening as in England, but around the hearth of the individual farmstead at twilight. Each locality continues to possess its numerous houses of call, on whose hearths the inhabitants of the scattered homesteads still meet for conversation and for their entertainment. Much of the informality of the hearth has been transferred to the services of the local places of worship and to the concerts held occasionally in church vestries or parish halls. The latter still possess much of the informality of the traditional Welsh noson lawen (literally, “merry evening”) which was once commonly conducted in the farm kitchen.

The age-old isolation, the lack of facilities for formal social events, and the long hours of solitude associated with a pastoral life have also had a profound effect on material culture. This is expressed in the products of craftsmanship and in the tools and equipment of the farm and home. Much of Wales consists of inhospitable moorland with narrow valleys leading from the central core of upland like the spokes of a giant wheel. Much of the land is more than a thousand feet above sea level and in many parts is poor and stony, while the climate is damp. Even in the more favored valleys it is difficult for a farmer to take advantage of the natural condition of his soil if the rain pours down continually. To obtain a good crop of barley or wheat, sunshine is essential, but when there are mists and rain the farmer must adapt his agriculture to climatic conditions.

No part of Wales may be said to be perfectly suited to the growth of cereal crops, and by tradition, Welsh society is a pastoral one; the key to its development has been animal husbandry rather than cereal cultivation. Sheep and cattle provided the raw materials for two important industries, those of woolen manufacturing and leather production. Furthermore, livestock farming never needed the elaborate equipment of arable farming, and for this reason specialized craftsmen such as plowwrights and scythe-handle makers, rake makers, and wattle-hurdle weavers, so common in English villages, were a rarity in Wales.

All woodwork was carried out by country craftsmen who were able to construct everything in wood from fences to farm vehicles and from coffins to tool handles; metalwork was the province of the general blacksmith and not of specialized families of plowwrights and scythe smiths, and as in peasant societies the world over, a great deal of the equipment for the farm and home was made by the farmers themselves, rather than by craftsmen. For example, until recently the wheelless sledges used for harvesting upland fields were built by the farmers. All they required were timber, a hammer, saw, and a few nails, and they were able to build a perfectly efficient vehicle. In an upland district of dispersed family small holdings, the making of such things as farm gates, seedlips, baskets, tool handles, rakes, and tools was also part of the routine of farming. Farmers often showed considerable artistry in their work, and the tradition of the amateur, the tradition of the part-timers, has given us perhaps the greatest expression of our material culture.

We can imagine the life of no more than sixty years ago as being far more leisurely than it is today. Entertainment was at a premium, and many of the inhabitants practiced some form of craft in their spare time. The things they produced were the utilitarian necessities of the farm and home, but as time progressed the products became purely decorative. It was this tradition that gave Wales its love spoons, its stay busks, knitting-needle sheaths, and basketry – products of an upland peasantry that lived in isolation.

To many a hill farmer, life was a constant battle against the gorse, heather, and reeds that constantly threatened to take over the limited amount of arable land. The income of the hill farmer in the past was always low, and could afford neither elaborate and costly equipment nor much beyond a staple diet of homegrown food. Potatoes, oatmeal, milk products, and bacon were the main elements in the rural diet, which in many areas, was monotonous in the extreme.

Many parts of rural Wales are still isolated from the mainstream of life, and this has had a profound effect on the development of rural industry. Because of distances from the market and large centers of population, rural workshops in Wales have either remained small or have completely disappeared. This is the main reason why an industry like woolen manufacturing, for example, has declined so alarmingly. In the well-populated districts of lowland England, many small workshops established a hundred or more years ago that at one time formed an integral part of self-sufficing village communities have, owing to easy marketing conditions, become industries of major importance; but no such development took place in rural Wales. Even in those cases where rural workshops have not developed into major industries, many craftsmen in lowland England have often been able to continue in production because they are within reach of markets. Thus, for example, a Hampshire rake maker still produces willow hand rakes, and is able to make a living because he can sell his products throughout southern England.

In rural Wales until fairly recent times, there were generations of country people who looked no further than their own immediate communities for the means of life. In many parts of Britain, at least until the end of the nineteenth century and much later in some districts, people were largely dependent on their own resources, especially in the remote rural areas. To many, life was a scavenging existence; they would gather from the forests, mountains, fields, and seashore and would process their harvests within their own communities. The materials produced were for their own consumption. If a locality in which an individual lived did not have the natural resources necessary, then he found substitutes or lived without. In the scavenging economy of the past, local raw materials were fully utilized to produce food and shelter, medicine and clothes, fuel and tillage tools. Ingenious skills were evolved to ensure the survival of the human race.

But, of course, as time progressed the natural resources of the countryside were less effectively exploited as the products of modern industry became increasingly available, even in the remotest corners of the country. Raw materials once regarded as essential for the survival of a community became neglected, and skills that once were considered to be a vital qualification for many a countryman have long been forgotten. Mass production, mass transport, and mass advertising contributed to the breakup of the ageless pattern of life. New ideas and technologies that ignored all national and regional boundaries led inexorably to the destruction of the rural neighborhood as a social and economic entity.

Nevertheless, in some parts of the country, especially in the remoter, mountainous districts, the old and the new coexisted side by side until quite recently, and in some communities there was a marked reluctance in accepting modern innovations. The techniques born of Abraham Darby’s blast furnaces in the Severn Valley took longer to penetrate the fastness of the Upper Severn, Plynlimon, and the Berwyn Hills than they did to cross the ocean to North American and Australasia. “Mountains are the barrier against change,” said one author. “Wherever there are mountains you will find old memories, old beliefs, old habits, and unaltered ways.”2 Until quite recently, in many parts of rural Britain many of the skills of the past were still retained, and it is only within the last twenty-five years that vestiges of the old self-sufficing rural economy have been totally obliterated.

Nevertheless, those skills of the past may have their relevance in the future, for in a postindustrial era when our resources begin to run dry or in the face of some catastrophic collapse of our economic system, the skills of the past may at least provide a basis for survival. The remembering of forgotten techniques, the revival of obsolete skills, may provide the hope for a new but different future.

In the development of society throughout the world, the specialist, the trained artisan, has always been essential for the survival of a community. The craft element in the makeup of a rural population everywhere has been of great importance in determining the welfare of a community, and it is only within the last fifty years or so with the advent of mass production and easy transport that there has been an erosion in the craft element of a rural population. In modern Britain, the craftsman has become less important in the community, but in the past the person who catered for the day-to-day needs of his own people was essential in the fabric of society.

In a poor community, where the margin between existence and starvation was a very narrow one indeed, a family had to depend on its own resources for the means of life. To many a hill farmer, life was a constant battle. Heavy rainfall and bleak conditions meant a constant fight against the elements. There were severe constraints on higher output; the prospects of arable farming were poor; and upland pastures were sterile and could easily become waterlogged. The income of the hill farmer in the past was of necessity very low, and he had few cash crops that he could sell on the open market to ease his life. The hill farmer could never effort the elaborate and expensive tools of tillage demanded by his more fortunate lowland counterpart. Neither could he go beyond a staple diet of homegrown food for the nourishment of his family, and the bacon broth and oat bread that seemed to be the main dietary essentials of the upland families were really the food of poverty. To till his land and fence his fields, the hill farmer was forced by circumstances to depend on his own ingenuity for making the best possible use of the limited raw materials available to him. A great deal of the equipment required by the hill farmer was made by the farmer himself, and many farmers displayed considerable craftsmanship in making the essentials for survival. Hand tools and domestic utensils, field gates and fences, animal feeding baskets and transport devices, were made by hill farmers from the raw materials available to them in their own immediate locality. The hay crops were often so thin that they were insufficient to feed the cattle and sheep during the winter, so gorse and ferns that grew in such profusion on the hillsides were often harvested, in an attempt to supplement the supply of fodder.

In every community there were always one or two people who were more competent than others in producing the necessities of life. Perhaps one farmer in a community would be recognized by his neighbors as an efficient dry-stone waller or a clever animal doctor, while another would have earned for himself a reputation as a maker of shepherds’ crooks, slide cars, straw rope, quilts, or ruche halters. These were the part-time, semiprofessional though untrained craftsmen with skillful hands that gave them status in a community that valued handwork. These highly skilled amateurs – y dynion dethe – were an element in most rural communities.

There were many people in every rural community who were regarded as professional craftsmen, although many of these practiced their craft on a part-time basis. However, most were fully trained artisans who had served a period of training or apprenticeship. In some cases a rural craftsman spread his activities over a wide field and never specialized in the production of a narrow range of items. Thus a country carpenter in most parts of rural Wales, for example, was expected to turn his hand to all tasks where competence in using woodworking tools was required. The country carpenter –y saer gwlad– built and maintained buildings; he was a wheelwright as well as a funeral undertaker; he repaired and constructed farm implements, made rakes and tool handles, and could be called upon as a painter and decorator. Many craftsmen, too, combined their craft activity with another occupation. Many a rural woolen mill, for example, was run until the 1960s by part-time weavers and part-time farmers. The ways of a textile worker in rural Dyfed or Gwynedd were a world away from the export-oriented manufactories of Powys.

In the old self-sufficing economy, cash payments were not always important, and an exchange of labor or of goods often took the place of payment in money. Corn millers, for example, were by tradition allowed to keep a proportion of the grain that each farmer brought in for milling. In most cases the payment – y dôll (“toll”)– was required to feed the chickens and cattle that most millers kept. Most Welsh millers were part-time farmers, for the amount of grain grown in the major part of Wales would never justify the existence of full-time millers. Blacksmiths too were often paid in grain, root crops, and scrap iron, while woolen manufacturers kept a proportion of all the fleeces brought into their mills for processing as payment for their services.

In the self-sufficing rural neighborhood, the specialized craftsman, whether full-time or part-time, was an integral member of society. As a result, almost everything required by a community could be produced by its own members. If a community did not possess all the artisans necessary for its survival, then the rural areas always possessed their groups of itinerant craftsmen, who, when necessary, could pay visits even to the remotest homestead. These traveling craftsmen were characteristic of many parts of rural Wales until 1939. Many of them did not even possess their own permanent workshops, for their place of work was a farm kitchen or barn or any other temporary accommodation available to them for carrying out essential work for each individual farmer. Many a craftsman spent a lifetime wandering through the countryside, and a few days’ board and lodging were always regarded as part of the remuneration of the traveling tailor, dressmaker, saddler, and carpenter.

Throughout the centuries man has utilized the natural resources around him to produce the essentials for his survival. Many of those resources were originally utilized to supply the needs of a countryman’s family and neighbors only, but in time the availability of a resource ensured the development of a craft or industry that brought in money to those that practiced it. In the Newborough district of Anglesey, for example, the existence of marram grass and its utilization in making baskets, mats, and rope meant the difference between the survival of local families and their obliteration. Newborough was described by a nineteenth-century traveler as “the most miserable spot in Anglesey,” with men eking out a living on poor agricultural land that was constantly under threat from advancing sand dunes. The women were concerned with weaving marram grass, about the only vegetation that could grow on the sand dunes, and although this craft was undoubtedly started so as to provide essentials for the local community itself, in time it developed into a major craft industry. The marram grass products of Newborough were sold throughout Gwynedd, and the practice of weaving meant the difference between starvation and existence to a poverty-stricken community.

There have been changes in upland Britain, changes that have taken place since the end of the First World War and changes that have been greatly accelerated since 1945. No longer does the countryman look towards his own locality, his own community, for the means of life; and neither are the natural resources of the countryside utilized as they were. The craftsman, the man or woman with skillful hands, is no longer a cornerstone of a rural community. The skills of generation after generation of country people contributed in no small measure to the variety of regional life.

A community has been described as “an area of common living marked by a degree of social coherence.”3 In order to justify the description community, a group of people occupying a tract of land must be distinguished from those occupying an adjacent territory. Members of a community must be aware of sharing a way of life as well as occupying a common tract of land. In rural Wales, the feeling and spirit of a community is not of necessity associated with a nucleated village settlement, for an area of scattered farms may possess as strong a neighborhood feeling as the closest-knit of village settlements. Until recent times, life in the countryside moved within a distinct area, and many a countryman regarded as his fellows those people that dwelt within the narrow bounds of his own locality. These were his neighbors, his own people; for beyond the nearest hill, across a stream, or down a valley were people no different from himself, but they were strangers from another neighborhood.

Traditionally, a countryman’s round of life, his work, his leisure, brought him into contact that was close and intimate with people living within his own district. It is this group, defined variously in space, less so in numbers, that makes up the local community. A community’s boundary may correspond to a natural division on the earth’s surface and may exist because a natural barrier may prevent contact between a group of people and those occupying an adjacent territory. The basis on the other hand may be purely social; a place of worship or other institution may provide the unifying influence to a group, while craft workshop or country store may provide a facility for social intercourse as well as providing goods and services to a rural population.

But the rural neighborhood was something far more than a social entity; it was very largely an economic unit as well. In the survival economy, all members of a local community were dependent on one another. In an area of dispersed family farms, no single holding could exist in isolation. There was cooperation between farmer and farmer within a neighborhood group; implements were cooperatively owned; and on certain occasions, such as sheepshearing, potato picking, and hay making, the labor force on many farms attained vast proportions. It was not uncommon to see as many as a hundred people in the potato field or hayfield of a farm of less than eighty acres in size. At all times implements and draft animals were borrowed by the various members of the neighborhood family group. Perhaps only one farm in that group kept a bull, while another kept a boar, which was so vital for animal breeding within a pastoral community. Nonfarmers or cottagers too had their part to play in the organization of the neighborhood groupl they were expected to assist in the hay, corn, or potato harvest and were either paid in kind by the farmers or given the right to plant potatoes in the farmer’s field. The farmer himself undertook to weed the potato rows and supply manure, but for this service the cottager had to work for a number of days according to an agreed and rigid formula.

But things have changed in rural Wales; for since 1939 the agricultural economy has been completely transformed, and the technological, economic, and social changes brought into being, since 1945 in particular, have completely altered the outlook of the Welsh farmer. One of the most significant social changes which came as a result of technological improvement was the almost complete destruction of the neighborhood group with its intimacy of association nad cooperative organization. Today each farm in the region tends to be an economic unit, almost completely independent of its neighbors. Although few Welsh farmers employ paid labor on a full-time basis, a wide range of modern equipment makes it possible for the farmer to complete his work with little outside help. In nearly all aspects of farm work, voluntary contributions of friends and relatives have ceased; and the coownership of implements, so widely practiced in the past, no longer operates.

In the agrarian changes that have taken place, rural industry has also declined spectacularly; local craftsmen have disappeared by the thousands, and their products have been replaced by standardized goods produced in the urban centers of Britain. The county of Cardigan in 1923, for example, had seventy-two corn mills; in 1980 it has one. In 1923 it had 114 blacksmith’s shops; today it has 8. In 1923 it had seventy-seven woolen mills; today it has two. Other rural industries – clog making, bowl turning, tanning – have virtually ceased to exist, while most of the others are much rarer than they were.

As a result of the decline of rural industry the countryside has lost something more than economic units producing essential goods; it has also lost an important avenue of expression, for in the social history of the countryside the importance of the craft workshop as a meeting place for the rural community can not be overestimated. In many cases the cobbler’s shop, the smithy, and the carpenter’s yardf were social centers where problems were discussed, where argument was rife, and where wit at its highest level was the order of the day.


1 E.G. Bowen, quoted in J. Geraint Jenkins, Life and Tradition in Rural Wales (London, 1976), p. 13.

2 H.V. Morton, In Search of Wales (London, 1945), p. 268.

3 R.M. MacIver and C.H. Page, Society (London, 1950), p. 9.


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