Mountain people


A Bridge near Brecon (1809). Image: public domain

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain (1968) is very firmly set in the early 19th century in mid-Wales. Having done her research she evokes placenames, legends, speech-patterns, history and people in this alternate/alternative history fantasy, all within the parameters of a tightly-plotted narrative.

In this post I want to introduce the Welsh characters who inhabit these pages, leaving outsiders, incomers and nobility to a related post. As with so many of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken has created a rich background for her story, including a large cast of characters, but so many of the main players are distinctive enough that it’s not too hard keeping track of who’s who. As is my wont, in these notes I aim to suggest possible inspirations for how the author created her alternative history timeline.

The Hughes family
When surnames became de rigueur in the medieval period this resulted in formulations such as ‘Hughes’ meaning Huw’s/Hugh’s (son), while the Welsh form ap Huw (“son of Huw/Hugh”) readily transformed into the surname Pugh

Owen Hughes, son of Captain Owen Hughes and grandson of another Owen Hughes. Relatively small in stature, he relies on his one pair of spectacles to see the world around him. In this story Owen appears to be around 14; his contemporaries are old enough to play in the town football team.
Owen spent his childhood on board the sloop HMS Thrush until the Poohoo rising in China when he and his mother were sent back to Wales on a tea clipper. He now lives with his grandfather in Pennygaff, at the museum, but his clothing betrays his upbringing — he wears a nankeen jacket, made from Nanking cotton.
Sadly Mrs Hughes died of typhus en route from China but Owen arrived in Southampton in the summer of last year and was given a lift to Pennygaff in the Black Mountains of Wales by Tom Dando and his daughter Arabis.

Captain Owen Hughes, of HMS Thrush, father of young Owen Hughes. Ten years before this story opens Captain Hughes meets Brothers Twm and Ianto of the Order of St Ennodawg in the Chinese port of Yngling during the so-called pink-eye epidemic. (Epidemic conjunctivitis or pink eye is transmitted by a virus.) The last news heard of him is during the uprising in Poohoo province, though we know that subsequently he rejoined his ship at Bermuda in late summer of 1835, sailing the Thrush (with Dido Twite on board) to South America and then back to the South China seas.
We’ll learn in The Cuckoo Tree that he was “wounded in the Chinese wars, had been coming home on sick leave, when his ship the Thrush had become involved in another battle, against the French this time, and had captured a French frigate.” Unbeknown to young Owen is that his father is on his way back to London with a Dispatch from China, accompanied by Dido Twite.

Mr Owen Hughes, Owen’s grandfather, a former sea captain – he retired from active service three years before – is now keeper of Pennygaff Museum on a salary of ten shillings per annum. As peevish as his son, he is both stern and strict with his grandson who feels he has failed him, and so parsimonious he charges Pennygaff residents to sleep in the museum library. Conservative in his attitude his dress reflects the 18th-century styles of his youth rather than that of the 1830s.
Mr Hughes has done some excavating on the island in the River Gaff, on the site of the ruined monastery of St Ennodawg, and has discovered an ancient golden harp, now on display in the museum. He was at school with Ianto Richards before the latter joined a religious order and went as a missionary with Brother Twm to China.

The Dando family
This otherwise unusual surname is still common in the West Country (Somerset, Gloucestershire) and also in Monmouthshire

Arabis Dando is the same age as young Owen Hughes (and thus about 14) though slightly shorter. She is skilled in herbal medicine and accompanies her father in his wagon. Her pet falcon, Hawc, often is found perched on a topknot woven from her dark hair. The Welsh word arabus, which means ‘witty’, is pronounced exactly the same, though arabis is actually rockcress.

Tom Dando, Arabis’ father, is a poet who acts as general factotum where medical help and haircutting is concerned. He is descended from Teirtu, a figure from Welsh mythology who owned a famous harp. In the medieval tale of Culhwch and Olwen the hero is tasked to obtain this harp: “When a man desires that it should play, it does so of itself, and when he desires that it should cease, it ceases. And this he will not give of his own free will, and thou wilt not be able to compel him.” King Arthur and his knights offer to help Culhwch to retrieve this harp.
The harp of Teirtu passed to Tom’s paternal grandmother Tegwyn Dando (née Jones, married to Davy Dando) half a century before, and was buried in the ruined island monastery in the river Gaff.
Tom is also completing his epic Arthurian poem The King at Caerleon.

Arabis Camilleri is Tom Dando’s late wife, mother of Arabis and an unnamed son. A native of Melita (Malta), she perished ten years ago along with her son after being turned out of Malyn Castle, Caer Malyn in the depths of winter. She had earlier that year refused a proposition from Lord Malyn when they’d met in Pontypridd, South Wales.

Inhabitants of Pennygaff
Welsh-looking name (compare Pen-y-Bont or Pen y Fan) actually taken from the term for a popular Victorian short entertainment, originally costing a penny for entry to the venue (the ‘gaff’). According to Pat Marriott’s sketch map for illustrated editions of The Whispering Mountain, Pennygaff lay on the western flanks of the Black Mountains on the road from Hereford to Caer Malyn

Mr Price, tetchy but ineffective schoolmaster at the Jones Academy for the sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen, Pennygaff.
Reverend Mr Thomas Edwards, vicar of Pennygaff.
Cyfartha Jones, town gossip. This first name, derived from Cyfarthfa Rocks in Merthyr Tydfil, originates from Welsh cyfarth which means ‘to bark’ or ‘barking’ with the suffix -fa, ‘place’; not an inappropriate name for a gossip.
Mrs Evans ‘the grocery’.
Davy Morgan, landlord of the Dragon of Gwaun inn.
Dai, potman at the Dragon Inn.
Olwen Lloyd-Jones, second cousin once removed to Davy Thomas of Nant Agerddau.
Aunty Blodwen, related to Dove Thurbey.

Youths playing ball, 14th-century Gloucester Cathedral misericord (Dominic Strange ©

The following seven are all members of the town ‘football’ team. This may have been what the Welsh know as cnapan, a free-for-all ball game played since at least the ninth or tenth centuries between neighbouring villages or districts in the southwest of Wales; possibly similar to games like Cornish hurling, its rough-and-tumble rules may be what inspire Hwfa and his gang to pick on Owen

Hwfa Morgan, son of Davy Morgan; nearly six-foot tall, ringleader of school bullies and a player in the town football team; the name Hwfa is associated with medieval North Walian princes, while Morgan is a common South Walian name.
Dove Thurbey, Blodwen’s nephew, member of town football team; may get his name from the river Dyfi (rhymes with ‘luvvie’) from which Aberdovey gets its name.
Luggins Cadwallader, another member of football team; first name suggests someone beefy, the second is from the mythical ‘last king of Britain’ (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth).
Mog Glendower, town footballer; last name from Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.
Follentine Hylles, town footballer, is bitten by a wolf and is first to return home after initially setting off for Caer Malyn. (His prénom may possibly derive from Valentine.)
Soth Gard, footballer; second to return home en route to Caer Malyn.
Dick Abrystowe, town footballer who also returns home from Caer Malyn expedition; family perhaps originally from Bristol, if Abristowe represents à Bristow or maybe ‘son of Bryste’ (the Welsh term for Bristol).

Inhabitants of Nant Agerddau
Said to mean ‘stream of vapours’ the spa resort of Nant Agerddau derives from nant ‘brook’ and ager/agerdd meaning ‘steam’ or ‘vapour’. We only meet a handful of townsfolk here

Davy Thomas, landlord of Boar’s Head Inn.
Doctor Jenkins, physician.
Brother Ianto Richards was at school with young Owen’s grandfather before joining the Order of St Ennodawg and travelling with Brother Twm to China as a missionary fifty years before the present (that is, about 1785). Ten years before this story Captain Hughes encounters Twm and Ianto in the Chinese port of Yngling, after which they begin a ten-year trek home across Asia and Europe. One year ago they rescued an Eastern potentate, the Seljuk of Rum from drowning in the River Oxus. Brother Twm has since died but Ianto has set up living quarters in a cave in Nant Agerddau, from where he dispenses spectacles which he prepares using techniques he learnt in China.

To be continued …

To get a flavour of the early 19th-century landscape that underlies the author’s evocation of ‘y mynydd sibrwd’, Wales illustrated, in a series of views, comprising the picturesque scenery, towns, castles, seats of the nobility & gentry, antiquities, &c. by Henry Gastineau (1791-1876), published by Jones & Co of London in 1830, is a useful resource to consult:


12 thoughts on “Mountain people

    1. Thanks, Yvette, you’re probably right over it coming over well as a film — the first two books in the Wolves Chronicles — The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea — were freely adapted for the screen, the latter as a BBC TV serial (viewable on YouTube).

  1. =Tamar

    Given the diseases – typhus, pink-eye – I wonder about the name of the ship. “Thrush” is the name of a songbird, but it is also the name of a fungal disease caused by Candida albicans.

    1. I’m sure the author would be aware of word’s associations, Tamar, though I think it’s more likely that (as I’ve argued elsewhere) Joan was playing around with avian connections. Virtually every one of the Wolves chronicles features bird names or actual feathered creatures, from the Thrush and Dido Twite to cockatoos, geese, cuckoos, owls and nightingales (not forgetting the title of Night Birds in Nantuckets).

      Diseases such as typhus and conjunctivitis do get mentions in the chronicles too, but they’re part and parcel of the range of jeopardies faced in these alternative histories, whether kidnapping, attacks by wild animals, dangerous terrains or poisoning.

      But I don’t dismiss your suggestion out of hand, Tamar! I’ll have a little think how it might be valid and apply to the tales — after all, the naval ship gets a substantial mention in at least four of the titles!

  2. Heavens…the complete Aiken Materia Medica? Now there’s a challenge for you! But O for the film…anyone listening out there?
    I was brooding about a Christmas quiz, but up to ears somehow as you can tell by my tardy response! Many thanks as always.

    1. Yes, it is a busy time of year for us all, isn’t it? I have had scarcely had time to blog or even read because of (very enjoyable, I should add) orchestral rehearsals and concerts, choral singing, accompanying choir rehearsals and instrumental exam candidates, even conducting carols! And there’s garden work to factor in, a daily walk etc etc … but I wouldn’t have it any way, just a few more hours in the day and the requisite energy would be welcome!

      A TWM film would be magical, especially if it stayed close the original plot — even a Christmas TV serial along the lines of the BBC’s ‘The Box of Delights’, for example!

      As I trawl through Owen and Arabis’s delightful story I’m in awe of Joan’s research and creativity. Now I’m wondering if Joan knew our market town of Crickhowell — she may well have passed through here on her way to Brecon — for with a few adjustments it fits many of the descriptions of Pennygaff, from the bridge to the chapels and even the inn called the Dragon (though ours isn’t the same as Crickhowell’s Bridge End Inn. However, there are a lot of settlements around here that would suit equally well!

    1. I was pleased to find the illustrated publication available online, particularly as it’s almost contemporary with this Wolves Chronicle! That bridge is perfect, isn’t it? 🙂

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