Background to Wales and the Celts

Hill forts

A study by Oxford University lists 4,147 hill forts in Britain and Ireland.  These raange from well preserved forts to those where only crop marks are left. There are around 600 hill-forts recorded in Wales, some of them no more than small fortified enclosures, probably no more than fortified farms.  However, there are twenty-two which exceed six hectares and which provided shelter and protection for their inhabitants through many centuries.  All were built over a period of a thousand years or so and were added to at various times, presumably when war and discord were at their height.

Some of the most important hill-forts had a strategic purpose.  Llanymynnech covers an area of fifty-seven hectares and its size is probably explained by the importance of the near-by copper mines.  Many of the most important Breiddin, Ffridd Faldwyn and Oswestry Old Fort - the latter a central background to the story - are located where the uplands of Wales meet the low lands of Shropshire.


The oldest iron artefact is a sword dating back to 600 BC and discovered in Llyn Fawr (mentioned in the story) in 1908.  The coming of iron changed the nature of society and yielded to those who had the secret of smelting and working it an advantage.  Perhaps this was recognised in the legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Foch, in which the Lay and her white cattle returned to her own world on being struck with iron by her husband.

Also found at Llyn Fawr were other important artefacts which say much of the trade and links with mainland Europe which must have been a common feature of the period covered in the story.

In particular, other votive offerings found in the lake at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey confirm these links, and the tradition of working in the style now known as "La Tène".

The invasion of the Romans

In August 55 BC Julius Caesar landed in Kent with ten thousand soldiers.  According to him he was in the middle of his conquest of Gaul and the purpose of the expedition was to punish the Belgae of Britain for the succour they were providing to their cousins in Gaul.

However, it is widely assumed that the real reason for the expedition was to enrich Rome and especially Caesar and to enhance his reputation.  His expedition did not fare well and he left Britain after only one week, to return a year later.  Again his visit was a short one and on both occasions he was much discomforted by the resistance of the Celts.

It was another one hundred years before the next Roman invasion, but one thing that Caesar did leave behind was a description of the Celts, much of which today is recognised as "propaganda" although with a flavouring of fact.  Caesar's descriptions were as much about extolling his virtues and justifying the invasions as painting an historical picture of the Celts.

Welsh Gold

One of the reasons for the invasion by the Romans was gold.  Even then Welsh gold had a reputation for its quality and look. So today gold for the Royal wedding rings still traditionally comes from Welsh gold.

Welsh gold was mined by hand and is found in an area stretching from Barmouth, past Dolgellau and up towards Snowdonia. Welsh gold-bearing rock lies in seams, like coal, and has been known to yield up to thirty ounces per tonne. There are no operational gold mine left in Wales, the last being that at  Dolaucothi, near Pumpsaint, Carmarthenshire.  This mine was producing gold before the invasion of the Romans who continued to extract gold from it.  After their departure it lay abandoned for centuries, although it was briefly reopened in the 19th century but with the mine finally closing in 1938.

The Gwynfynydd Gold Mine in Dolgellau (where one chapter of this story is set) opened in the 1860s and is one of the richest gold mines in Britain with a recorded output since 1884 of more than 2,000 ounces of fine gold. However gold is to be found in the river and it is not to far fetched to beleive that the Celts might not have worked this rich seam of gold.

Gold was also produced at Clogau Gold Mine in Bontddu, near Barmouth, in the 1850s and in the early twentieth century Clogau was an important producer. The mine has operated intermittently to the present day. It was from the Clogau and Gwynfynydd mines that gold for the Royal wedding rings was obtained.

Who were the Celts?

Caesar in particular gave a very one-sided view of the Celts which was accepted unquestionably for many years.  Modern scholarship now disputes this one sided view and paints a much more balanced picture.

Theirs was a culture with a history and legacy at least the equal of the Greeks and the Romans.  It was their ancestors in Galatia who received a letter from the Apostle Paul, their mercenaries (as body-guards) who guarded Cleopatra, and they were the ones who attacked Rome in 390 BC and Delphi in 278 BC and even fought at Thermopylae.

The names of the cities of London, Paris, Vienna and Gallipoli are Celtic in origin.  And it was not only the Romans who built roads, for since the early Iron Age the Celts had had a network of paved and semi-paved roads good enough to transport their famous chariots.

It should not be assumed that the Celts looked like paint-daubed savages; the Romans, who described the British as "vain," noted their attention to appearance and personal hygiene. Gold and bronze torcs, :solid heavy necklaces, have been found at numerous Iron Age sites.

The Celts were also expert in weaving and dyeing and loved bright colours. One of Britaain's experts was the clothing produced by the Celts which were especailly valued by the Romans and may have been another reason for the invasion.   The National Museum in Cadiff gives a good background to their culture, legacy and history.

The Celtic Tribes of Wales

Much of what is known about the people of Wales at this time comes from Roman sources and often scholars are unsure of what the tribes called themselves, most of the tribal names coming from Roman sources.

The Deceangli        

Are the people of what is today broadly North Wales. The number of hill-forts in the area and the length of their occupation indicates that they probably lived mainly in hill-forts.  There are a series of such forts along the entire length of the Clwydian Range. 

From Moel Hiraddug near the mouth of the Clwyd river to the eastern bank of the Moel y Gaer river they run in a closely formed chain. Further west along the northern Welsh coastline from the mouth of the Clwyd, are Deceanglian forts at Pen y Corddyn, Conwy Mountain at the mouth of the Conwy and Pen y Gaer further inland along the Conway valley, and Dinas Dinorwig overlooking the Menai Straits and Ynys Mon Insula.

The Demetae

This tribe lived in the modern counties of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and their capital was Moridunum, modern Carmarthen.

Not much is known about the Demetae. Since they were not a warlike tribe and did not resist the Roman occupation like the Silures and the Ordovices little was written about them. Probably due to this peacefulness, their lands were not strongly garrisoned.

The Romans did explore for gold in the mines of Luentinum (Pumpsaint) in the Demetae lands and one of the mines they exploited was that of Dolaucothi.

The Silures
Rhiannon's village of Cwtch was situated in the land of the Silures.  They were a powerful and warlike tribe who occupied broadly the counties of Monmouth, Brecon and Glamorgan.  Their capital was at Caerwent near Chepstow.

The Ordovices

The Ordovices had a strong military tradition and lived in fortified strongholds and hill-forts but were also farmers and shepherds. Their lands were located between the Silures to the south and the Deceangli to the north.

The Cornovaii        

Their territory probably covered the modern counties of Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. Little is known of the Cornovaii themselves, but their capital was probably Oswestry where Rhiannon and Geraint travel to the Cyfaddod.   

Interestingly some Romanised Cornovii are known to have served as Roman legionaries.

The tribe's control of the south-Cheshire salt-making industry and its distribution probably gave them a fair degree of wealth, multiplied by trading and cattle breeding. However, their economy was mainly a pastoral one.