Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 28

Robert Lleiaf — Prophetic Englyn — The Second Sight — Duncan Campbell — Nial’s Saga — Family of Nial — Gunnar — The Avenger.

“AV i dir Mon, cr dwr Menai, Tros y traeth, ond aros trai.”

“I will go to the land of Mona, notwithstanding the water of the Menai, across the sand, without waiting for the ebb.”

SO sang a bard about two hundred and forty years ago, who styled himself Robert Lleiaf, or the least of the Roberts. The meaning of the couplet has always been considered to be, and doubtless is, that a time would come when a bridge would be built across the Menai, over which one might pass with safety and comfort, without waiting till the ebb was sufficiently low to permit people to pass over the traeth, or sand, which, from ages the most remote, had been used as the means of communication between the mainland and the Isle of Mona or Anglesey. Grounding their hopes upon that couplet, people were continually expecting to see a bridge across the Menai: more than two hundred years, however, elapsed before the expectation was fulfilled by the mighty Telford flinging over the strait an iron suspension bridge, which, for grace and beauty, has perhaps no rival in Europe.

The couplet is a remarkable one. In the time of its author there was nobody in Britain capable of building a bridge, which could have stood against the tremendous surges which occasionally vex the Menai; yet the couplet gives intimation that a bridge over the Menai there would be, which clearly argues a remarkable foresight in the author, a feeling that a time would at length arrive when the power of science would be so far advanced, that men would be able to bridge over the terrible strait. The length of time which intervened between the composition of the couplet and the fulfilment of the promise, shows that a bridge over the Menai was no pont y meibion, no children’s bridge, nor a work for common men. Oh, surely Lleiaf was a man of great foresight!

A man of great foresight, but nothing more; he foretold a bridge over the Menai, when no one could have built one, a bridge over which people could pass, aye, and carts and horses; we will allow him the credit of foretelling such a bridge; and when Telford’s bridge was flung over the Menai, Lleiaf’s couplet was verified. But since Telford’s another bridge has been built over the Menai, which enables things to pass which the bard certainly never dreamt of. He never hinted at a bridge over which thundering trains would dash, if required, at the rate of fifty miles an hour; he never hinted at steam travelling, or a railroad bridge, and the second bridge over the Menai is one.

That Lleiaf was a man of remarkable foresight, cannot be denied, but there are no grounds which entitle him to be considered a possessor of the second sight. He foretold a bridge, but not a railroad bridge; had he foretold a railroad bridge, or hinted at the marvels of steam, his claim to the second sight would have been incontestable.

What a triumph for Wales; what a triumph for bardism, if Lleiaf had ever written an englyn, or couplet, in which not a bridge for common traffic, but a railroad bridge over the Menai was hinted at, and steam travelling distinctly foretold! Well, though Lleiaf did not write it, there exists in the Welsh language an englyn, almost as old as Lleiaf’s time, in which steam travelling in Wales and Anglesea is foretold, and in which, though the railroad bridge over the Menai is not exactly mentioned, it may be considered to be included; so that Wales and bardism have equal reason to be proud. This is the englyn alluded to:-

“Codais, ymolchais yn Mon, cyn naw awr Ciniewa’n Nghaer Lleon, Pryd gosber yn y Werddon, Prydnawn wrth dan mawn yn Mon.”

The above englyn was printed in the Greal, 1792, p. 316; the language shows it to be a production of about the middle of the seventeenth century. The following is nearly a literal translation:-

“I got up in Mona as soon as ’twas light, At nine in old Chester my breakfast I took; In Ireland I dined, and in Mona, ere night, By the turf fire sat, in my own ingle nook.”

Now, as sure as the couplet by Robert Lleiaf foretells that a bridge would eventually be built over the strait, by which people would pass, and traffic be carried on, so surely does the above englyn foreshadow the speed by which people would travel by steam, a speed by which distance is already all but annihilated. At present it is easy enough to get up at dawn at Holyhead, the point of Anglesey the most distant from Chester, and to breakfast at that old town by nine; and though the feat has never yet been accomplished, it would be quite possible, provided proper preparations were made, to start from Holyhead at daybreak, breakfast at Chester at nine, or before, dine in Ireland at two, and get back again to Holyhead ere the sun of the longest day has set. And as surely as the couplet about the bridge argues great foresight in the man that wrote it, so surely does the englyn prove that its author must have been possessed of the faculty of second sight, as nobody without it could, in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the powers of steam were unknown, have written anything in which travelling by steam is so distinctly alluded to.

Truly some old bard of the seventeenth century must in a vision of the second sight have seen the railroad bridge across the Menai, the Chester train dashing across it, at high railroad speed, and a figure exactly like his own seated comfortably in a third-class carriage.

And now a few words on the second sight, a few calm, quiet words, in which there is not the slightest wish to display either eccentricity or book-learning.

The second sight is the power of seeing events before they happen, or of seeing events which are happening far beyond the reach of the common sight, or between which and the common sight barriers intervene, which it cannot pierce. The number of those who possess this gift or power is limited, and perhaps no person ever possessed it in a perfect degree: some more frequently see coming events, or what is happening at a distance, than others; some see things dimly, others with great distinctness. The events seen are sometimes of great importance, sometimes highly nonsensical and trivial; sometimes they relate to the person who sees them, sometimes to other people. This is all that can be said with anything like certainty with respect to the nature of the second sight, a faculty for which there is no accounting, which, were it better developed, might be termed the sixth sense.

The second sight is confined to no particular country, and has at all times existed. Particular nations have obtained a celebrity for it for a time, which they have afterwards lost, the celebrity being transferred to other nations, who were previously not noted for the faculty. The Jews were at one time particularly celebrated for the possession of the second sight; they are no longer so. The power was at one time very common amongst the Icelanders and the inhabitants of the Hebrides, but it is so no longer. Many and extraordinary instances of the second sight have lately occurred in that part of England generally termed East Anglia, where in former times the power of the second sight seldom manifested itself.

There are various books in existence in which the second sight is treated of or mentioned. Amongst others there is one called “Martin’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland,” published in the year 1703, which is indeed the book from which most writers in English, who have treated of the second sight, have derived their information. The author gives various anecdotes of the second sight, which he had picked up during his visits to those remote islands, which until the publication of his tour were almost unknown to the world. It will not be amiss to observe here that the term second sight is of Lowland Scotch origin, and first made its appearance in print in Martin’s book. The Gaelic term for the faculty is taibhsearachd, the literal meaning of which is what is connected with a spectral appearance, the root of the word being taibhse, a spectral appearance or vision.

Then there is the History of Duncan Campbell. The father of this person was a native of Shetland, who, being shipwrecked on the coast of Swedish Lapland, and hospitably received by the natives, married a woman of the country, by whom he had Duncan, who was born deaf and dumb. On the death of his mother the child was removed by his father to Scotland, where he was educated and taught the use of the finger alphabet, by means of which people are enabled to hold discourse with each other, without moving the lips or tongue. This alphabet was originally invented in Scotland, and at the present day is much in use there, not only amongst dumb people, but many others, who employ it as a silent means of communication. Nothing is more usual than to see passengers in a common conveyance in Scotland discoursing with their fingers. Duncan at an early period gave indications of possessing the second sight. After various adventures he came to London, where for many years he practised as a fortune-teller, pretending to answer all questions, whether relating to the past or the future, by means of the second sight. There can be no doubt that this man was to a certain extent an impostor; no person exists having a thorough knowledge either of the past or future by means of the second sight, which only visits particular people by fits and starts, and which is quite independent of individual will; but it is equally certain that he disclosed things which no person could have been acquainted with without visitations of the second sight. His papers fell into the hands of Defoe, who wrought them up in his own peculiar manner, and gave them to the world under the title of the Life of Mr Duncan Campbell, the Deaf and Dumb Gentleman: with an appendix containing many anecdotes of the second sight from Martin’s tour.

But by far the most remarkable book in existence, connected with the second sight, is one in the ancient Norse language entitled “Nial’s Saga.” 3 It was written in Iceland about the year 1200, and contains the history of a certain Nial and his family, and likewise notices of various other people. This Nial was what was called a spamadr, that is, a spaeman or a person capable of foretelling events. He was originally a heathen — when, however, Christianity was introduced into Iceland, he was amongst the first to embrace it, and persuaded his family and various people of his acquaintance to do the same, declaring that a new faith was necessary, the old religion of Odin, Thor, and Frey, being quite unsuited to the times. The book is no romance, but a domestic history compiled from tradition about two hundred years after the events which it narrates had taken place. Of its style, which is wonderfully terse, the following translated account of Nial and his family will perhaps convey some idea:-

“There was a man called Nial, who was the son of Thorgeir Gelling, the son of Thorolf. The mother of Nial was called Asgerdr; she was the daughter of Ar, the Silent, the Lord of a district in Norway. She had come over to Iceland and settled down on land to the west of Markarfliot, between Oldustein and Selialandsmul. Holtathorir was her son, father of Thorlief Krak, from whom the Skogverjars are come, and likewise of Thorgrim the big and Skorargeir. Nial dwelt at Bergthorshval in Landey, but had another house at Thorolfell. Nial was very rich in property, and handsome to look at, but had no beard. He was so great a lawyer, that it was impossible to find his equal, he was very wise, and had the gift of foretelling events, he was good at counsel, and of a good disposition, and whatever counsel he gave people was for their best; he was gentle and humane, and got every man out of trouble who came to him in his need. His wife was called Bergthora; she was the daughter of Skarphethin. She was a bold-spirited woman who feared nobody, and was rather rough of temper. They had six children, three daughters and three sons, all of whom will be frequently mentioned in this saga.”

In the history many instances are given of Nial’s skill in giving good advice and his power of seeing events before they happened. Nial lived in Iceland during most singular times, in which though there were laws provided for every possible case, no man could have redress for any injury unless he took it himself, or his friends took it for him, simply because there were no ministers of justice supported by the State, authorised and empowered to carry the sentence of the law into effect. For example, if a man were slain, his death would remain unpunished, unless he had a son or a brother, or some other relation to slay the slayer, or to force him to pay “bod,” that is, amends in money, to be determined by the position of the man who was slain. Provided the man who was slain had relations, his death was generally avenged, as it was considered the height of infamy in Iceland to permit one’s relations to be murdered, without slaying their murderers, or obtaining bod from them. The right, however, permitted to relations of taking with their own hands the lives of those who had slain their friends, produced incalculable mischiefs; for if the original slayer had friends, they, in the event of his being slain in retaliation for what he had done, made it a point of honour to avenge his death, so that by the lex talionis feuds were perpetuated. Nial was a great benefactor to his countrymen, by arranging matters between people, at variance in which he was much helped by his knowledge of the law, and by giving wholesome advice to people in precarious situations, in which he was frequently helped by the power which he possessed of the second sight. On several occasions he settled the disputes in which his friend Gunnar was involved, a noble, generous character, and the champion of Iceland, but who had a host of foes, envious of his renown; and it was not his fault if Gunnar was eventually slain, for if the advice which he gave had been followed, the champion would have died an old man; and if his own sons had followed his advice, and not been over fond of taking vengeance on people who had wronged them, they would have escaped a horrible death, in which he himself was involved, as he had always foreseen he should be.

“Dost thou know by what death thou thyself wilt die?” said Gunnar to Nial, after the latter had been warning him that if he followed a certain course he would die by a violent death.

“I do,” said Nial.

“What is it?” said Gunnar.

“What people would think the least probable,” replied Nial.

He meant that he should die by fire. The kind generous Nial, who tried to get everybody out of difficulty, perished by fire. His sons by their violent conduct had incensed numerous people against them. The house in which they lived with their father was beset at night by an armed party, who, unable to break into it owing to the desperate resistance which they met with from the sons of Nial, Skarphethin, Helgi, and Grimmr and a comrade of theirs called Kari,4 set it in a blaze, in which perished Nial, the lawyer and man of the second sight, his wife Bergthora, and two of their sons, the third, Helgi, having been previously slain, and Kari, who was destined to be the avenger of the ill-fated family, having made his escape, after performing deeds of heroism which for centuries after were the themes of song and tale in the ice-bound isle.

3 One or two of the characters and incidents in this Saga are mentioned in the Romany Rye. London, 1857, vol. i. p. 240; vol. ii. p. 150.

A partial translation of the Saga, made by myself, has been many years in existence. It forms part of a mountain of unpublished translations from the Northern languages. In my younger days no London publisher, or indeed magazine editor, would look at anything from the Norse, Danish, etc.

4 All these three names are very common in Norfolk, the population of which is of Norse origin. Skarphethin is at present pronounced Sharpin. Helgi Heely. Skarphethin, interpreted, is a keen pirate.


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