Surrounded by Saints
Priordy Penmon / Penmon Priory © Jean Williamson
"What's with all the 'Llan's?"
It's the first thing most visitors notice, when driving into the
Wales is "the land of Llans," where roughly half of all place
names -- over 600 by one count -- begin with the prefix "Llan."
(It means roughly "enclosed area" or "parish," the land
surrounding a church.) In general, the Welsh people named their
towns after their churches - and they named their churches after
Their saints. Not Rome's, not England's. Back in
the fifth century AD, canonisation (the choosing of saints) was a
local, democratic process. If a person lived an exemplary life,
doing good and perhaps founding a church, then the locals might
just declare him a saint.
Then they'd remember him in songs and stories, passed down
orally from one generation to the next. There wasn't any need
for official recognition. As the historian Jane Cartwright writes,
"In Wales sanctity was locally conferred."
Stories That Live Forever
A millennium and a half later, very little evidence remains for
these local saints --but the stories live on, colourful as
Take St. Tyfrydog (pronounced "Tuv-ree-dog"), for instance.
According to legend, he founded a church (which became the centre
of the village called Llandyfrydog) on Anglesey around the year
A few years later, a man stole the church's precious, ornate
bible, stashing it in a sack on his back. The preacher caught the
thief, and as punishment, turned him to stone.
Hard to believe?
To this day, nearly 1700 years later, there's an upright stone
in a field about a mile from the church. It's about 4 feet high,
with a lump on its "back." Locals call it Carreg Leidr (Stone
Thief) and the road that goes from the church to that field is
called Lôn Leidr (Thief Lane).
"The Dark" and "The Light" Meet in the
Just down the lane from here lies the well of Clorach, at the
centre of the island and at the centre of another immortal
story. Around the year 500, the two most well known local
saints, Seiriol and Cybi, met at Clorach every week.
As the story goes, Cybi, walking eastward almost 20 miles from
his retreat on Holy Island, faced the morning sun and grew tanned.
He became known as "Cybi the Dark." Seiriol, traveling westward
from Penmon, away from the morning sun, became "Seiriol the
A true story? Again, that's hard to say. Seiriol and Cybi were
probably real people, but the story of their weekly walk may have
been invented later, or -- perhaps more likely -- the story
actually predates the saints. It's quite possible that, like other
relics of the previous pagan era, the story was so well loved by
locals that the Christians "borrowed" it, transferring to their
saints a much older lesson about the interplay of dark and light,
two halves of a larger whole.
Pabo, The Retired Warrior Saint
Just down the road again, the parish of Llanbabo remembers its
founder, St. Pabo. According to a few scant records, Pabo was
born the king of a large tribe in northern Britain, around the year
450. As a king, he fought many battles against the Picts and the
Scotti (Irish raiders who would eventually settle the area that
The story goes that Pabo retired from his throne about 470,
converted to Christianity, and came to Anglesey to spead the faith.
On the island, he founded a church and a monastic community, and
even a saintly "dynasty" of sorts - three of his grandsons also
became Welsh saints: Asaph, Deiniol, and Tysilio.
Eilian makes the blind see - and a deer
At about this same time, the Pope supposedly sent another
missionary to North Wales, all the way from North Africa.
Eilian, his family, and all his farm
arrived by ship, landing on the North Anglesey coast around the
year 450. Some say that, if you go to Porthyrychain at low
tide, you can still see the saint's cattle's hoof marks in the
The Prince of Gwynedd (and Anglesey) at that time was Cadwallon
Lawhir, whose men stole Eilian's cattle. For this crime the monk
struck Cadwallon blind. But Cadwallon then showed some remorse, so
Eilian restored his sight. In exchange, Cadwallon said he would
grant Eilian as much land as a deer could cover before being
brought down by a
pack of hounds.
So Eilian released his pet deer, who sped across the fields. The
dogs gave chase, but the deer kept going for miles, until it
reached a gorge near what is now Porth Amlwch. With the dogs
closing in, the deer somehow leaped across the wide gorge. So
Cadwallon was forced to grant Eilian a huge domain.
During his lifetime Eilian became well known as a healer of eye
ailments, and people came from across the island to wash their eyes
in his well. And even today the gorge near Amlwch is called Llam y
Carw ("Deer's Leap").
Walk in the Footsteps of Saints
Whether these stories are "true" in the strictest sense, their
long endurance bears witness to the power of the saints'
personalities and to the reverence of the local people, who retold
the tales for centuries.
And it's not just the people who seem to hold gently the memory
of saints. It's also the landscape, which in many places remains
nearly pristine. The gentle hills covered in grass and sheep, the
sheltered valleys, the dramatic headlands -- so many appear today
just as they might have when Dwynwen first arrived, or Eilian or
Even now, a visitor, walking up quietly through an open field on
a calm spring morning, can behold simple Llanbabo church just as a
medieval pilgrim might have. She can walk the path that Pabo trod,
sit in the glade where he sat, feel the same soft breeze float by.
For modern pilgrims, Anglesey remains rich with sacred
-- by Susanne Intriligator