How do you become a Welsh bard?

Bardic meeting at Caernarfon c. 1894

There's a well-known story about Cadair Idris, a mountain in southern Snowdonia: if you sleep one night on its summit, it's said you'll wake either a bard or a madman. However, bards – or beirdd as they're usually called in Welsh – are not just figments of folklore. They are instead representatives of an ancient poetic tradition, one that survives in Wales to this day. How, then, does someone become a bard, if not by sleeping on a hill?

Medieval bards

Evidence of named Welsh bards goes back to the sixth century. They were a vitally important part of society in medieval Wales, often composing praise poems in the courts of kings and noblemen.

Becoming a fully qualified bard was not easy: it required mastery of complex metrical systems, and a thorough grounding in historical and legendary lore. However, we sadly know little about the details of bardic training: evidence suggests that pupils were taught orally by experienced practitioners of the craft.

This system was codified to some extent in the later medieval period, but by the end of the seventeenth century, the medieval system of bardic training had effectively died out.

Hilltop inspiration

Our earliest example of the legend that sleeping on Cadair Idris turns someone into a bard comes from the scholar Siôn Dafydd Rhys (1534–c.1609), in a collection of tales about giants. Cadair Idris (or "Idris's Seat") was the site of a supposed giant's grave, and it seems this conferred upon it magical powers.

Similar legends have nevertheless spread far and wide: the eighteenth-century travel writer Thomas Pennant told a similar story about Snowdon, and it even turned up in a 1995 Hugh Grant movie set in southern Wales.

Modern bards

In one sense, all modern Welsh poets are bards: bardd remains the most common word for "poet" in the language. However, there is also a more formal way to become a bard: that is, to be inducted into Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain [the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain], which meets every year at the National Eisteddfod.

This institution, and the ceremonies and robes associated with it, were invented by the fiery, inspired, and occasionally laudanum-addled Iolo Morganwg (1747–1826). Claiming to reveal ancient truths, but in fact heavily influenced by French Revolutionary politics, Iolo and his collaborators (like many others in Welsh history) made becoming a bard exactly what they wanted it to be.

Our places with bardic connections

View over Mawddach Estuary from Cregennan

Cadair Idris in South Snowdonia 

Inspired by its supernatural reputation, a number of authors have set unearthly encounters on this mountain, from the Romantic poet Felicia Hemans — who called its summit the 'birthplace of phantoms' — to children's fantasy author Susan Cooper, who staged a battle between the forces of good and evil here in her novel The Grey King. It's perhaps better not to risk madness by sleeping there, but why not briefly close your eyes on its slopes, and see if the bardic awen [inspiration] arrives?

Dinefwr Castle ruins

Dinefwr and its castle 

In the medieval Laws of Hywel Dda, Dinefwr (along with Aberffraw in Gwynedd and Mathrafal in Powys) is recorded as one of the three great courts of Wales. Here highly trained and respected bards would have sung the praises of the rulers of Deheubarth, using the complex forms and metres of medieval Welsh bardic poetry. A number of their poems addressed to the House of Dinefwr have survived in manuscripts to this day.

Exterior of Egryn, nr Barmouth, Gwynedd

Egryn 

This house was the childhood home of William Owen Pughe (1759 - 1835), one of Iolo Morganwg's chief collaborators in the creation of the bardic Gorsedd, and a founder of the modern Welsh eisteddfod. Pughe also wrote Welsh poetry himself, and signed his compositions using the bardic name 'Idrison'. This, quite appropriately, was a reference to Cadair Idris — the legendary bardic mountain that dominated Pughe's corner of Meirionnydd.