In the north of Pembrokeshire, nestling by the estuary of the River Teifi, can be found the village of St Dogmaels. Take a walk along the road by the river and you will see a mermaid sitting on a rock, looking out across the water. You approach her with some apprehension; it’s not every day you meet a mermaid. But as you get closer it becomes apparent that she is in fact a wooden sculpture. But why is she there? And why at St Dogmaels? Do mermaids really exist? As you wrestle with these questions you find yourself drawn into the swirling milieu of Pembrokeshire legends.
Legends abound in Pembrokeshire. And some are of giant proportions. Many eons ago, so the legends say, three giants lived amongst the Preseli Hills. Their father, Owen, neglected to make a will and when he died his three sons fought over who should inherit his land. An epic battle ensued as the three giants hurled rocks at each other across the hills. The large rocks which can be seen to this very day lying amongst the Preselis are said to have been those thrown by the battling giants. They fought to the death with even the last giant standing eventually succumbing to his wounds. Just to the south of Ty Canol woods on a barren hillside can be seen a line of rocky outcrops. These are known as Carnedd Meibion Owen, the Cairns of the Sons of Owen. It is said that these outcrops are the bodies of the giants which had eventually turned to stone.
Not all Pembrokeshire giants were as energetic as the three sons of Owen. Take, for example, the case of Skomar Oddy. He is a giant who lived in a cave somewhere near Foel Cwmcerwyn, the highest hill in Pembrokeshire. He spent most of his time sleeping, only waking every one hundred years. But he was galvanized into action one day when two sea monsters decided to have a pitched battle in the Milford Haven Waterway. As they fought they tossed fish and other sea creatures unceremoniously onto dry land where they were in danger of dying. People ran to the cave to get help. They knew only Skomar Oddy could save the day. They managed to wake him and he proceeded, bleary-eyed, to walk in great strides towards the haven, scooping up the sea creatures as he went and returning them to the water. When the monsters saw him they took fright and fled. Skomar Oddy then brushed his hands, said something along the lines of, `Right, I’m off to get some rest,’ and wandered back to his cave.
As we travel forward from the days of giants we see glimpses in the mists of men such as King Arthur, St David and St Govan, each with their own legends to be told. Time prevents us from dwelling on these now, but before we return to the present we find ourselves witnessing the birth of the legend of the Huntsman. We are on the south coast, not far from St Govan’s Chapel and the Green Bridge of Wales. In the distance, silhouetted against the sky, a huntsman rides his horse at full gallop along the clifftop. But then we realize that he is riding towards a deep chasm in the rock. He is clearly oblivious to the danger but as he reaches the chasm his horse leaps across. We sigh with relief, but then the rider stops the horse to look back at the enormity of the leap his horse has just accomplished. Our relief turns to horror as the huntsman whitens with shock at his near miss and dies in the saddle, collapsing to the ground. Ever since this chasm has been known as Huntsman’s Leap. Today this is a favourite site for rock climbers.
And so we return to St Dogmaels and the statue of the mermaid. The story goes that an eighteenth century fisherman called Peregrine was hauling his catch into his boat off the coast of St Dogmaels when he found a mermaid in his net. He set sail for home, keeping her captive. She pleaded with him to let her go and eventually he relented and put her back in the sea. She promised that she would protect him in the future. A few weeks later he set sail under clear blue skies, along with other fishing vessels, when he saw the mermaid. She warned him to return to shore as a terrible storm was coming. He duly took her advice but all the other fishermen just laughed at him and sailed on. Within hours a great tempest arose upon the sea. All the vessels and the crews were lost but Peregrine was safe back on land, thanks to the warning of the mermaid.
As we look out over the waters, with seagulls flying overhead, yachts lazily making their way seawards and the water like a millpond save for the splash of a fish’s tail, we reflect on the legends of Pembrokeshire with their stories of giants and huntsmen and mermaids. Then, as we walk away, we stop and look back onto the water. That fish’s tail seemed awfully large. It couldn’t be … could it?
Photo credit: Top of the Woods