Welsh whisky - The Early Myths
The oldest claim for the existence of a distilled alcoholic spirit in the British Isles comes not from Ireland, nor from Scotland, but from another Celtic region: Wales. And the claim is quite specific as it gives a name, a place and a date: Reaullt Hir, Bardsey Island, 356 AD. A further very old claim states that distilling was known in Wales in the 6th century because the famous Welsh bard Taliesin mentions distilled mead in his 'Mead Song'. Finally, distilled alcoholic drinks are also said to feature in "The Mabinogion", a collection of Welsh sagas possibly dating from the 11th century, but containing elements that are probably much older. Let's look in more detail at each of these three early claims for alcoholic spirits from the "Land of the Dragons".
Reaullt Hir & Bardsey Island
'The Great Welsh Warrior' Reaullt Hir is said to have distilled 'chwisgi' from braggot brewed by the monks of Bardsey Island in 356 AD. These monks then allegedly developed the art of distilling further. I was lucky enough to get in contact with two experts on the history of Bardsey Island and the legends surrounding it: Mary Chitty (author of The Monks of Ynys Enlli, published in 1992) and Mona Williams. The following is largely based on Mary Chitty's work.
Bardsey Island, or Ynys Enlli, is also known as 'the island of saints' because legend has it that 20,000 saints are buried there. According to tradition, the first monastic community on the island was founded by St. Cadfan, a Breton, in 429. When Æthelfrid, the first king of Northumbria, destroyed the monastery of Bangor Is-coed in the early 7th century, 1,200 monks were said to have been slaughtered and many of the survivors are thought to have fled to Bardsey Island.
There is no evidence to back up these particular legends, but various bits and pieces (including the discovery on the mainland not far from Bardsey Island of two late 5th or early 6th century tombstones belonging to priests) put together strongly suggest that Bardsey Island was an ecclesiastical center from the 5th or 6th century onwards. The earliest solid bits of evidence for monks inhabiting the island are part of a grave cross, dating to the late 10th or early 11th century and the contemporary record of the death of a monk on the island in 1011. The monastic importance of Bardsey Island lasted until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s. Back in the realm of legends, Bardsey Island also appears in the Arthurian legends as the island where Merlin keeps the 'Thirteen Treasures of Britain' in a glass house.
Neither Mona Williams nor Mary Chitty had ever come across any evidence for distilling on Bardsey and the name Reaullt Hir was completely unknown to them. I have not been able to find any evidence to show that 'The Great Welsh Warrior' Reaullt Hir was an historical person. For instance, his name is not mentioned in John Davies' classic work, A History of Wales, and the National Library of Wales had no record of him; my contact there told me that the name "Reaullt" is 'a Welsh version of a Norman name, therefore, this name could not have existed before the 11th century'.
About two hundred years further in time we come to the second early claim to the existence of some form of distilling in Wales: Taliesin mentioning the distilling of mead in his 'Mead Song'. Taliesin was an historical figure; he lived in the late 6th century and was a court bard for Urien, ruler of Rheged, the most prominent of the Northern British kingdoms. Nennius, in his Historia Brittonum, written in the 9th century, rates him among the top five bards in 6th century Britain:
At that time Outigern then fought bravely against the English nation. Then Talhaearn Tad Awen was famed in poetry; and Aneirin and Taliesin and Bluchbard and Cian, known as Gueinth Guaut, were all simultaneously famed in British verse.
A 14th century book called Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin) contains 12 poems which are generally considered to be actually by his hand. None of these 12 poems have a title similar to 'Mead Song' or mention the distillation of mead. Taliesin's contemporary (or near-contemporary) Aneirin mentions mead very frequently (plus wine and braggot) in his most famous work Y Gododdin, but again nowhere is there any mentioning of the distillation of mead (or of any other liquor).
So where does this supposed link between Taliesin and the distillation of mead come from? Seemingly from a 16th century manuscript called Hanes Taliesin (Tale of Taliesin). The manuscript contains a legend about how Taliesin got his poetic powers. As a baby, Taliesin was called Gwion Bach and was set to watch over the cauldron of Ceridwen in which she brewed a drink of knowledge intended for her ugly son, Afagddu. Three drops splashed on Gwion Bach's fingers. He put them into his mouth and by doing that, he got access to all knowledge. The cauldron then split in two and he was smart enough to know that Ceridwen would be out to get him, so he underwent a series of shape‑shiftings to avoid her. After several changes, he turned himself into a grain of wheat but she turned into a hen and ate him. He grew in her stomach and was reborn. As her plan had been spoiled, Ceridwen wanted to get rid of him, but he had been born of her and because she was a fertility goddess, she put him in a leather bag and sent him down the river Dee. He arrived in Aberdovey where King Elphin rescued him. The King was struck by the brightness of the baby's forehead and called him Taliesin, meaning "Radiant Brow". Taliesin grew up in Elphin's court and later in his life went to Gwynedd and became a bard. At some point in the story Taliesin sings a song containing the lines:
May abundance of mead be given Maelgwn of Anglesey, who supplies us, from his foaming meadhorns, with the choicest pure liquor.
Since bees collect, and do not enjoy, we have sparkling distilled mead, which is universally praised.
This last line is the line from the 'Mead Song' which, with some textual variation, is the line quoted in several whisky books to prove that distilling was known in 6th century Wales. Although elements of the legend itself are quite likely older than the 16th century, the claim for distilling of mead in Wales in the 6th century appears to be based on one word in a manuscript from the 16th century; from a time when distilling had been known in the British Isles for hundreds of years.
In the sagas, myths and fairytales from Wales and Ireland, feasting, drinking and 'carousing' play a prominent role. This description of a feast, from the Irish tale The intoxication of the Ulaid is a very nice example and shows that the old Celts certainly knew how to throw a party. Feasts like this were said to have gone on for days or weeks on end, sometimes even a year and a day!
Findtan, son of Níal Níamglonnach decided to prepare a feast, with one hundred vats of every kind of drink. The Ulaid, rose about Conchubhar, then, and he sent messengers out to invite the people of the province to Findtan's feast. Conchubhar himself went, in the company of the Cráebrúad, to Dún Dá Bend and the house of Findtan, son of Níal Níamglonnach. All the Ulaid assembled at the feast, so that there was not a man from the smallest hamlet who did not attend. Each king came with his queen, each lord with his lady, each musician with his proper mate, each hospitaller with his female companion; but they were attended to as well as if only a small company had arrived. Lovely, well-built, finely appointed sleeping chambers were prepared. Beautiful, lofty balconies were strewn with fresh rushes, and there were long houses for the hosts, broad capacious cooking houses, and a broad-entranced, multicoloured hostel, wide and high and handsome, with four corners and four doors, where the chieftains of Ulaid, men and women, might assemble and drink and make merry. Choice portions of food and drink were served them, so that sustenance for one hundred men reached every nine guests. Conchubhar ordered the drinking house by deeds and divisions and families, by grades and arts, and by gentle manners, all towards the fair holding of the feast. Servers came to serve, cupbearers to pour, doorkeepers to guard the doors. Musicians came to play and sing and amuse. Poems and tales were recited, and jewels and gems and treasures were distributed.
The stories in "The Mabinogion" frequently mention feasts, although not as lavish as the one described above. The alcoholic drinks mentioned by name in "The Mabinogion" are mead, braggot, wine and beer; all fermented drinks. Nowhere is there any mentioning of a distilled spirit and there is nothing to indicate the existence of the distillation of alcohol when the stories were first written up. Besides for getting merry, alcoholic drinks could be used to serve other purposes. The following two fragments tell us how to flush a demon out of a horn with wine and how to catch dragons with mead:
And Llefelys had made a long horn of bronze, and through that horn they conversed; and whatever words they said one to the other though the horn, it came to each of them as nothing but hateful contrariety. And when Llefelys perceived that, and how there was a demon thwarting them and making mischief through the horn, he had wine poured into the horn, and had it washed, and by the virtue of the wine had the demon driven out of the horn.
And a while thereafter Llud had the Island measured in its length and its breadth, and in the place where was the exact point of centre, he had a pit dug in the ground, and in that pit he set a tub full of the best mead that might be made, and a covering of silk over the face of it, and he himself keeping watch that night. And as he was thus, he saw the dragons fighting; and when they were worn and weary of their dire and frightful combat, they descended on top of the covering, and dragged it with them to the bottom of the tub. And when they had made an end of drinking the mead they fell asleep
Several other potential sources remain silent on the matter of distilled spirits existing in Wales well before they were known in other Celtic regions. The "Laws of Hywel Dda", which are analogous to the Irish "Brehon Laws" in a way, were codified in the 10th century and, like the "Brehon Laws", do not make any mention of distilled alcoholic beverages. In his books on Irish whiskey, Jim Murray introduces the writings of the monk Giraldus Cambrensis in an attempt to find evidence for the story that the soldiers of Henry II encountered the Irish drinking some form of whisky during the invasion of Ireland in the 1170s. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote about his travels in Ireland in The History and Topography of Ireland (Topographia Hibernica, finished 1188) and later wrote an account of the invasion of Ireland: The Conquest of Ireland (Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189). As Jim Murray makes clear, nowhere in these works does Cambrensis mention any form of distilling. Giraldus Cambrensis also wrote two books about Wales. In his Journey through Wales (Itinerarium Kambriae, 1191) he mentions wine being 'plentiful'. In Description of Wales (Descriptio Kambriae, 1194), a detailed description of Wales and the habits of the Welsh, there is reference to 'intoxicating drinks', but no drink is mentioned by name. Like in the works on Ireland, there is no reference to any kind of distilled alcohol.
Of course, absence of proof is not necessarily proof of absence, but so far I have not been able to find a single bit of evidence to suggest that knowledge of the distilling of alcoholic spirits existed in Wales centuries before it spread over the rest of Europe (and if anyone does know of such evidence, please get in touch with me!). Welsh whisky did come into existence later, so Wales certainly earned its place in whisky history ..... but that is for future articles!
Thanks to Nick Hawkins for permission to use a photo of Bardsey Island from his Ynys Enlli web-site (www.btinternet.com/~nick.hawkins/bardsey/home.html)
© 2000 Alex Kraaijeveld