When I went to visit Heron in Borth last year I stayed in Aberystwyth. On my last day I had the chance to climb Pen Dinas (‘Head of the Citadel’). This is the name of the northern summit of the hill overlooking Aberstwyth which lies between the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol.
When I made my visit, I went with limited knowledge. I’d read on Wikipedia that there was a Bronze Age burial mound on the southern summit. It was the site of two consecutive Iron Age hill-forts, one of which had been raided. The Romans did not occupy the hill, but a 4thC hoard of coins suggested they used it as a shrine.
I also read that Pen Dinas was associated with Maelawr Gawr (‘the giant’) who had three sons called Cornippyn, Crygyn and Babwa. Like in so many British stories he was presented as an adversary. In this case it isn’t clear what he’d done wrong. The crux of the story is that he was captured in Cyfeiliog and sentenced to death.
Maelawr asked his enemies a final request: to blow on his horn three times. The horn was so loud and forceful that on the first blow his hair and beard fell out, on the second his finger and toenails fell off and on the third the horn blasted apart and crumbled into pieces.
Cornippyn heard the horn whilst he was out hunting with horse and hound. He set off to rescue his father so fast he tore the head off his hound. He spurred his horse on in one leap over the Ystwyth and was slain in his attack on Maelor’s captors. Crygyn and Bwba were murdered in their fortresses in Llanilar and Llanbadarn Fawr the same night.
I was drawn up the hill by the magnetism of the Wellington Monument on the northern summit. It felt like a strong place: like the aura of giant wasn’t quite gone nor the feeling of relative safety offered by occupying a high hill.
Looking toward Penparcau I didn’t spot or hear a headless hound but I did see a pair of ravens.
Clouds marched in on a growing wind. I found myself feeling distant from the harbour beneath, Aberystwyth and the cliff railway, not so much in place but time.
I felt Gwyn’s presence and that of others cloaked in cloud and knew he had been there to gather the dead.
That was unexpected and it wasn’t until several months later I found a possible explanation. In The Triads of the Island of Britain I found the fragments of a story set during the Dark Ages.
One of ‘Three Horses who carried the Three Horse Burdens’ is ‘Dappled the horse of the sons of Gwerthmwl Wledig, who carried Gweir and Gleis and Archenad up the hill of Maelawr in Ceredigion to avenge their father.’
‘The hill of Maelawr’ has been identified as Pen Dinas by Owen Jones. In Cymru, he says ‘in the land of Aber Teifi there was in former times before Brutus came to this island, the giant Maylor, and the place where he lives is still called Castell Maylor, built upon a high hill or ridge which is called Y Dinas, beside the river Ystwyth, within the freehold of the town of Aberystwyth.’
It appears that Gwerthmwl led an attack on Maelawr and was defeated hence his three sons rode up Pen Dinas to avenge him. Pen Dinas was the site of two Dark Age battles as well as a raid in the Iron Age. There is no record of whether Gwerthmwl’s sons succeeded.
Further research turned up that Gwerthmwl was an important (albeit now forgotten) figure in British mythology who originated from northern Britain. In Rhonabwy’s Dream he appears as one of forty-two of Arthur’s counsellors.
In the ‘Three Tribal Thrones’ he is listed as ‘Chief Elder’ in ‘Pen Rhionydd in the North’ alongside ‘Arthur as Chief of Princes’ and ‘Cyndeyrn Garthwys’ (St Kentigern) as ‘Chief of Bishops’.
Pen Rhionydd has been identified with Ptolemy’s Rerigonium ‘very royal place’ and may have been located on the Rhinns. One possible location is Port Patrick, which used to be called Portree (from port righ ‘King’s Port’). Another is Penrith. Wherever Pen Rhionydd was, Gwerthmwl’s three sons travelled a long way to avenge their father’s death.
Gwerthmwl also appears in The Triads as one of ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Epithets such as Bull Chieftain, Bull Protector and Bull of Battle were commonly assigned to Dark Age warriors to illustrate their strength and battle-prowess.
Gwerthmwl’s status as a Bull-Spectre suggests he was as a bull-epitheted warrior who remained as a ghost. Another interpretation is he became wyllt ‘wild’ or ‘mad’ as a result of his battle with Maelawr (the welsh for Bull Spectre is tharw ellyll).
It is notable that Gwyn, who is addressed as a Bull of Battle by Gwyddno Garanhir, has strong associations with warriors with bull-epithets and gwyllon.
The resting place of Gwerthmwl is listed in ‘The Stanzas of the Graves’:
‘The grave of a chieftain from the North
is in the open land of Gwynasedd,
where the Lliw flows into the Llychwr;
at Celli Friafael is the grave of Gyrthmwl.’
Gwerthmwl’s grave is where the Lliw runs into the Llwchwr near Casllwchwr in Gower. He was buried a long way south of Pen Dinas and a long, long way from Pen Rhionydd in the North.
In the story of Maelawr and Gwerthmwl I come across another example of the destructive conflicts between the people of Wales and the North which Gwyn attended as a psychopomp.
What makes this particular story interesting is that Maelawr is most famously remembered as a giant. This raises the question of whether he was always known as a giant or was a human chieftain who literally grew in status after defending his hill from Gwerthmwl.
Could the story of Maelawr’s capture and death be founded on the vengeance of the sons of Gwerthmwl?
The answer lies buried as the giant’s bones, his fallen beard, fingernails, toenails, the broken pieces of his horn which still blasts clouds over the pillar that marks the location of his citadel.
Mike McCarthy, ‘Rheged: An Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway’ in Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 132 (2002),
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Wikipedia ‘Pen Dinas’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pen_Dinas