In 1910, researching his seminal Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Walter Evans Wentz travelled around Wales interviewing witnesses. In North Caernarfonshire, he recorded the local prominence given to belief in bwganod, goblins or bogies. In Montgomeryshire, he met a Mr D. Davies-Williams, who recalled:
“When I was a boy there was very much said… especially about the Bwganod, plural of Bwgan, meaning a sprite, ghost, hobgoblin, or spectre. The Bwganod were supposed to appear at dusk, in various forms, animal and human; and grown-up people as well as children had great fear of them.”Fairy Faith, 1911, 143 & 145
The bwgan may be unfamiliar to many readers, but it is a fascinating example of one of those supernatural beings that sits on the very borderline between the humanoid and more approachable ‘faery’ (or, strictly, tylwyth teg or ellyll, as we’re discussing Wales) and those creatures that are verging towards being murderous monsters. There are plenty of these across Britain- the redcap of Northern England is another that springs to mind- and their exact classification (if we’re going to try to be scientific about this) is tricky. In my encyclopaedia of faery beasts, Beyond Faery, I elected to place the goblins over the boundary, but- as will become clear- it’s not so easy to be clear cut.
The bwgan has relatives around the British Isles- on the Isle of Man there’s the boaj (The Cambrian, Dec.16th 1887, 6) and in Scotland there’s the bauchan, whose name is very clearly related. They all share similar characteristics: the Welsh term bwgan brain (scare-crow) gives you an idea what we’ll find. The Weekly News & Chronicle for May 2nd 1903 summarised the bwgan as “a terrible something of an ethereal nature,” which nicely captures the amorphous threat and sense of terror that may be associated with it. There’s a nut-wood near Holywell that’s haunted by the Bwgan Coed-y-Nant whilst, in the same county, the Bwgan Nant-y-Cythraul was a sort of ghost that appeared in the form of a man, a hare or a dog (Flintshire Observer, 15/1/1885, 5; Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald, 27/9/1879, 8). Thus, the Amman Valley Chronicle in 1919 offered a further definition: the English ‘bogeyman’ in Welsh finds equivalents in the bwgan, bwbach and the bwcci bo– to which you can compare ‘buggaboo‘ (Chronicle, 15/5/1919, 4).
Bwganod can haunt and they have some kinship to ghosts (and, for that matter, boggarts) and, as such, they can be laid by some form of religious or magical ceremony.
The Welsh poet and writer Thomas Gwynn Jones wrote an excellent study of Welsh Folklore & Customs in 1930. He began his chapter on the faeries by distinguishing the tylwyth teg as being “non-ghostly apparitions” in contrast to the bwca, bwci and bwbach that are ghost-like and scary (in Middle Welsh the verb bwbachu means ‘to scare). Elsewhere in the book Gwynn Jones epitomised the bwbach, bwci and bwgan as “haunting spirits, essentially ghosts,” beings whose terrifying potential was enhanced by their shapeshifting abilities (Welsh Folklore & Customs, 32 & 51). The bwbach llwyd of the mountains near Beddgelert could appear as a shepherd on mountain tracks, suddenly disappearing, or would haunt lowland fields, frightening children- who were warned to beware him (just as Mr Davies-Williams recalled of his own youth earlier).
The confusing thing is that the bwbach, which is obviously treated as very similar to the bwgan, can have a far more benign and domestic reputation. Here we need to go back a little earlier than Evans Wentz for a good account of the goblin’s nature. Wirt Sikes, in his British Goblins of 1880, told several stories about the being. At the start of his book, he broadly classified the bwbachod as “household fairies,” which definitely doesn’t sound very ghost-like (p.12). Later, he expanded on this:
“The Bwbach, or Boobach, is the good-natured goblin which does good turns for the tidy Welsh maid, who wins its favour by a certain course of behaviour recommended by long tradition. The maid having swept the kitchen, makes a good fire the last thing at night, and having put the churn, filled with cream, on the whitened hearth, with a basin of fresh cream for the Bwbach on the hob, goes to bed to await the event. In the morning she finds (if she is in luck) that the Bwbach has emptied the basin of cream, and plied the churn-dasher so well that the maid has but to give a thump or two to bring the butter in a great lump. Like the Ellyll which it so much resembles, the Bwbach does not approve of dissenters and their ways, and especially strong is its aversion to total abstainers.”Sikes, British Goblins, 31
Sikes then went on to tell an amusing story of a bwbach from Ceredigion that took against a Baptist preacher who was a guest in the house it was attached to. The preacher loved his prayers, and not pints of strong ale by a fire with good company, and the bwbach accordingly tormented him until he was driven out of the district. This behaviour might be regarded as ‘haunting,’ but the bwbach’s tricks, pulling away stools and scaring horses, might well remind us of the hobgoblin Puck, whilst Sikes’ general description is incontestably of a being a great deal more like a brownie than a ghost. As Sikes went on to remark:
“The same confusion in outlines which exists regarding our own Bogie and Hobgoblin gives the Bwbach a double character, as a household fairy and as a terrifying phantom. In both aspects it is ludicrous, but in the latter it has dangerous practices. To get into its clutches under certain circumstances is no trifling matter, for it has the power of whisking people off through the air. Its services are brought into requisition for this purpose by troubled ghosts who cannot sleep on account of hidden treasure they want removed; and if they can succeed in getting a mortal to help them in removing the treasure, they employ the Bwbach to transport the mortal through the air…”Sikes, 32.
Later in the book, the parallels with brownies and boggarts are underlined with the story of the bwbach of Hendrefawr farm in Merioneth. He was a constant nuisance to the family so they decided to move house to escape him. The attempt failed, because the bwbach was found to be ‘flitting‘ with the family and its furniture- something that brownies and hobgoblins do too (Sikes, p.117). Underlining the kinship, Sikes elsewhere stated that “the Bwbach is usually brown, often hairy” (p.133). Later still (p.190), he compared the creature to the pwca, remarking that “It might be urged that this spirit was a Bwbach, if a fairy at all…” With this last remark, we are almost back to square one, as the ambivalent status of the bwbach and bwgan are once again underlined.
As these examples demonstrate, even within a relatively small geographical area, the experiences and definitions of supernatural entities can be quite different- if not contradictory- so that drawing strict lines between ‘species’ and temperaments can be very difficult. Of course, we may well make matters harder for ourselves through a mistaken wish to imbue faeries with only friendly and helpful traits. As the folklore tradition demonstrates repeatedly, there’s an undeniable ‘dark side’ to faery which, if we bear it in mind, may make the negative qualities of the bwbach and bwgan seem far less anomalous.
The bwbach and bwgan are by no means unique in Britain , though. Very similar indeed is the English boggart, a being with an almost identical dual personality. There are plenty of stories of boggarts performing a domestic role equivalent to that of the brownie- undertaking farm chores and living and eating in the farmhouse. Yet this helpful and relatively friendly being can also (as it were, in the wild) prove at the very least terrifying if not outright dangerous. It haunts certain locations, scares travellers, plays malevolent pranks and occasionally inflicts fatal vengeance on those that annoy it. Indeed, the domestic boggart can react with some fury if it feels insulted or underappreciated. The folklore of the British Isles is, therefore, rich and complex. Faery folk are not monochrome characters that are either wholly benevolent or entirely monstrous. They- like us- can be complicated and unpredictable, sometimes good, sometimes very bad.