view of Snowdon from Llyn y Dywarchen
“I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore”
W. B. Yeats, The white birds
Throughout Britain, fairyland has been conceived as a separate country, with its own landscape, rivers, agriculture, buildings and climate. This belief was especially strong in England and Wales during the Middle Ages (see for example the stories of Elidyr and the golden ball or of The green children of Woolpit). Steadily, the fairies’ realm tended to shrink, until they were squeezed into the corners of our world. In some parts of Wales, though, the idea persisted in slightly altered form: Faery moved off-shore, so that it remained credible and occasionally visible, but rarely accessible.
Magical islands have a pedigree in Wales. Gerald of Wales described a lake atop Snowdon which was notable for its floating islet (Book II, c.9). Ever rational, he suggested that it was a piece of shore broken off but bound together by roots and buffeted back and forth by the winds at high altitude. For Gerald, the wonder lay in the topography itself, but in a later tale a fairy dimension was added. A maiden of the Tylwyth Teg had to separate from her human husband, yet she still contrived to see him from time to time, sitting on a buoyant turf whilst he sat of the shore of Llyn y Dywarchen (Rhys Celtic folklore, p.93).
Floating islands were not unique to inland waters. In 1896 a sea captain reported seeing an unmarked isle, just below the waves, near to Grassholm in the Bristol Channel. He said he had heard tell from old people of just such a land, that rose and fell periodically (Rhys pp.171-172). This was reported in the Pembroke County Guardian and, indeed, it was from Dyfed (Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen) that the stories of supernatural realms offshore came. These lands were called ‘Green Spots of the Floods’ and the ‘Green Meadows of the Sea’ or ‘Gwerddonau Llion.’ There was also a similar belief from across the channel in Somerset; there the mysterious isles were called ‘The Green Lands of Enchantment.’ Their exact location was not fixed and it is unclear how many enchanted isles were thought to exist between St Davids and the Lleyn peninsula, but there were consistent reports of sightings of verdant lands which appeared and disappeared from time to time.
One account stated that an island off Milford Haven was reached by a tunnel. The fairies used this to attend the markets at Laugharne and Milford (Sikes British goblins, pp.9 & 10; Rhys p.161). Comparable is a lake island at Llyn Cwm Llwch in the Brecon Beacons, which could be reached by a passage leading from a shoreline rock. However, this rock only opened once a year whilst the ‘garden of the fairies’ amidst the waves was invisible unless you stood in the correct spot (Rhys pp.20-22). It may be noted too that little clumps of flowers growing in inaccessible spots on the cliffs near Land’s End were known as the ‘sea piskies’ gardens.’
Returning to the coastal isles, they might only be seen by standing on a particular piece of turf- from St David’s churchyard or from Cemmes (? Cemmaes, near Machynlleth, although this is some miles inland and surrounded by hills?) As soon as contact with the sod was broken, the vision was lost, so that the only sure way of reaching the islands was to sail with a piece of turf on board (Rhys pp.161-72 & Wentz Fairy faith p.147); otherwise, the islands would be invisible to the boatmen. Such voyages were dangerous, though, as fairy time notoriously passes much more slowly than on land. Generations might lapse in what seemed like mere days for the island visitors.
The residents of these elusive lands were the Tylwyth Teg, more specifically the Plant Rhys Dwfn– the children of Rhys the Deep. His wisdom lay in protecting his land with magic herbs and in the strict moral code of honesty and good faith observed by his descendants (Rhys pp.158-160).
Magical islands are not uniquely a Welsh notion: The Reverend Robert Kirk in chapter four of his Secret Commonwealth mentions that faery may be “unperceavable … like Rachland and other enchanted isles.” The motif of the enchanted isle is ideal for fairyland: it is a place that is periodically visible, familiar but enticing, near but always out of reach. Only the very fortunate or clever may be able to see it, so that its reality or illusory quality are very hard to prove.