Wales has produced some of the greatest minds, personalities and mythical figures the world has ever seen, but nobody born on the wrong side of the Severn Bridge seems to know this. Our cultural history is either derided, rewritten, unnoticed or, worse, mistaken for being English (an affront for numerous reasons, not least because it's 2019 and loads of them still think sheep shagging jokes are good and our language needs to die).
In honour of Saint David's Day, we have decided to bring you this list of confirmed Welsh legends – some already celebrated, some less so – as a reminder that we are more than a series of mining disasters and Tom Jones saying, "I want you on my team." Yes, Dylan Thomas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and that guy who did The Snowman song, but also: wizards, the invention of the NHS and a heartwarming story about a man murdering his dog.
Obviously we had to be picky because this London-based website won't let us run 40,000 words on the matter (will the oppression never end!!), but just assume the entire cast of Satellite City is included.
Guto Nyth Bran
Every New Year's Eve, people takes to the streets of the Cynon valley to watch a race of semi-serious joggers, pissheads in fancy dress and a minor celebrity take the route of Welsh legend Guto Nyth Bran. Known locally as the fastest man to ever live, Guto was about in the 1700s and, though facts are mixed in with legend, it's thought he could run a 14 mile round trip to Pontypridd and back to his home in Porth in the time it would take for a kettle to boil.
The commemorative race, known as the Nos Galan, started in 1958 as a memorial to Guto, who died in Mountain Ash. Apparently he won the race, necked his girlfriend, and when she patted him on the back in congratulations he died from being winded. It’s probably bullshit, but it’s fun to shout about when you’re five Jägerbombs in, watching a race through your hometown in the light drizzle on the last day of the year.
– Gina Tonic
Robert Earnshaw’s debut for Wales was so good we had an entire school assembly dedicated to it the following day. The 14th of May, Millennium Stadium, Wales vs Germany. Second half begins, it’s 0-0, Wales kick off, big hoof-ball to John "also a massive legend" Hartson. He wins the knock down, and that clever, zippy, 21-year-old Robert Earnshaw sneaks in behind two German centre-backs, knocks it and smashes it into the top corner. Lovely front-flip celebration, lovely extended parable on the virtues of hard work and overcoming the odds for us the following day, eating into the first five minutes of Chemistry. Great stuff.
Wales were shit at football, and then Robert Earnshaw came along. Before him, it was hard to find a Wales player you could get properly excited about (Ryan Giggs, contrary to all available information, was actually never capped by Wales). He was quick, he had tricks, he tried overhead kicks, he didn’t care who he was playing against. That goal, and that win, was the beginning of an upward incline that peaked with the Euros in 2016, and if Robert Earnshaw had been 21 in 2016, we'd have won the whole thing.
– Harry Harris
INNOCENT DIC PENDERYN WAS HUNG OUTSIDE CARDIFF GOALS IN 1831 FOR HIS PART IN THE "MERTHYR RISING". IN THE LEAD UP TO HIS EXECUTION, INDUSTRIAL WALES WAS MARKED BY HUGE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL UNREST, AND A REBELLION WAS BREWING AGAINST SPIRALLING DEBT AND THE DEPLORABLE WORKING CONDITIONS IN THE MINES AND IRON WORKS.
THOUSANDS OF ANGRY WORKERS ROSE UP AND BATHED A FLAG IN CALF'S BLOOD TO CREATE A SYMBOL OF COMMON SUFFERING AND EQUALITY, IMPALED A LOAF OF BREAD ON THE STAFF AND BEGAN TO CHANT "CAWS A BARA" (BREAD AND CHEESE). THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME THE WORKING CLASSES HAD MARCHED UNDER A RED FLAG AS A SIGN OF WORKERS REVOLT, WHICH LATER BECAME THE INTERNATIONAL SYMBOL OF SOCIALISM.
THE RIOTERS TOOK THE TOWN AND ASSUMED TOTAL CONTROL OF MERTHYR TYDFIL, THEN THE IRON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD, FOR FOUR DAYS. THE MOB RANSACKED THE DEBTOR’S COURT, RETURNING THE CONFISCATED PROPERTIES AND BURNING THE DEBTOR’S BOOKS. TERRIFIED OF REVOLUTION, THE BRITISH STATE SENT IN THE ARMY, WHICH PROMPTLY MURDERED 24 PROTESTERS AND INJURED HUNDREDS MORE.
ONE OF THE SOLDIERS HAD BEEN STABBED IN THE LEG, AND LORD MELBOURNE, THE HOME SECRETARY, KNEW "JUSTICE" MUST BE DONE. A BYSTANDER CALLED DIC PENDERYN WAS SELECTED AS THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY, DESPITE A MASS PUBLIC APPEAL OF CLEMENCY, AND WAS MURDERED – IN HIS DEATH BECOMING THE FIRST MARTYR OF THE WELSH WORKING CLASSES.
Reality TV has never, ever improved on episode one of 1997’s Driving School, and Maureen "Mo" Rees slowly cutting in front of a moving vehicle on a dual carriageway outside Cardiff. You can stick Susan Boyle throwing a cat in the bin and Rebecca Loos wanking off a pig right up you. None even come close to an old Welsh bus driver called Dave, absolutely certain he's about to die, screaming "WHOAH" and trying to wrestle the steering wheel away from his wife, who by this point had already failed her driving test six times.
– Harry Harris
The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach
There are many lakes in Wales, and various legends associated with each. My favourite is yet another tale that would end up being bastardised by Arthurian legend: The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach. Also known as the Lady of the Lake, but not at all like the English version where she appears to give Arthur a sword or raise Lancelot after the death of his father, The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach is a supernatural being who agrees to marry a young farmer on the condition that he wouldn’t hit her three times. They married, raised cattle, and had three sons – but the farmer failed to keep up his side of the deal. On the third strike, the lady was like "see you after" and fucked off back to the lake as promised, taking the cattle with her. The farmer heartbrokenly followed and then drowned himself in it. The lady later appeared to their sons to tell them their mission on earth was to relieve the pain and misery of mankind, and they all became skilful physicians – now known as the famous Physicians of Myddfai. So there you are, The Lady of the Lake: not a temptress or a facilitator of men, but an enforcer of women’s rights and influencer of herbal medicine.
– Emma Garland
Coming from a long line of miners, it was a bold move for Adrian Street to move out of his hometown of Brynmawr to become a glam rock wrestler in Florida. It’s even rumoured that his high femme, pigtailed performances in the 1970s and 80s helped to birth glam rock, with Marc Bolan citing Street as a sartorial influence.
Mocked when he left home to pursue wrestling, Street returned in style in 1973 to do a now infamous photoshoot with his father down the mines, shot by Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller. Street’s aesthetic also translated into his performance, where he would pin down masculine opponents with kisses and then apply makeup on them. As a Welsh man who found power and a career not just in being feminine, but overtly mocking traditional and toxic masculinity, Adrian Street is the definition of an icon – eventually leaving the US to settle back down in Cwmbran with his manager/wife, Miss Linda.
– Gina Tonic
I couldn’t care less about horse racing, as I am generally allergic to massive gatherings of posh people. That said, the story of Dream Alliance is the greatest story ever told, and that’s all because of Janet Vokes.
A barmaid and shop assistant at ASDA in the old mining town of Cefn Fforest, all Janet wanted to do was breed a racehorse. So, in the local working men’s club, she convinced everyone to join a syndicate, buying her a broodmare to breed with a racing stallion so she could raise the resulting foal: Dream Alliance. Despite sneering glances from the hoity-toity big-hatted tongue-clucking goons at Aintree or wherever the fuck horse people hang out, Dream Alliance – who was initially raised on an allotment – smashed it. Thirty races, £138,000 in prize money, Janet front and centre at every race, not once ever conceding space to those who clearly didn’t think she belonged there.
– Harry Harris
Doris from Gavin & Stacey
“Let her come up to me, as she undoubtedly will, and say ‘Oh, Dor, where’s the salad?’ and I’ll say ‘Oh, fatty, where’s my cash?’”
The best thing about Gavin & Stacey is that (thanks to being co-written by Ruth Jones) it simply gets Welsh people and what it means to be Welsh. Whether you’re from Barry Island or Anglesey, you will recognise the characters on screen reflected in your own family and the people around you. And Doris, the cranky, surprisingly randy elderly next door neighbour, is the most unmistakable of the lot.
Doris is your friend’s nan who never seems too happy to see you, or too happy in general. The woman who’s lived next to you all of your natural life (and most of your parents' lives too) who you never quite seem to know. She’s a complete caricature, of course, of a certain generation that saw some shit and doesn’t quite know when or how to exist in the modern day. But then again, she lived through Thatcher, so she can say whatever the fuck she wants.
– George Griffiths
One of the finest and only examples in British history that you can be a man of government and not a total cunt. If Nye was alive today to see the mess Westminster is making of the National Health Service he invented, he’d feel even more depressed than when I accidentally threw up at the foot of his memorial statue in Cardiff on my 19th birthday after doing too many sambuca shots (for posterity and balance, I immediately threw up outside McDonald's on purpose). Emma Garland
The Bards of Wales
It’s 1277, and King Edward I has a banquet at Montgomery Castle, in which he invites 500 Welsh bards to come for the express purpose of rhapsodising about how good he is. What they do instead is, essentially, roast him. It slightly backfired, in that he then had them executed, but what a way to go. Weirdly, the story was turned into a Hungarian epic poem by Janos Arany in the 19th century, and is taught pretty extensively in Hungarian schools from a young age.
The more likely story is that King Edward I saw the influence Wales' folk traditions had on its people, and had these bards executed as a kind of pre-emptive strike to stop them stirring up dissent. This is often how stories in Welsh history end up, but there’s a nice irony here in that despite this pretty brazen act of genocide, Welsh people have continued to wrestle back the narrative from their oppressors. We still tell stories of Wales’ past. We still speak our own language. We still have our own culture. And our national anthem is miles, miles better.
– Harry Harris
Charlotte Church has had an illustrious career. She sold 1 million albums by the time she was 12. She released her greatest hits at 16 (sixteen! Rihanna hasn’t even released her greatest hits!) She sung for the Pope. She testified before The Leveson Enquiry. She’s accomplished more in her life than you or I ever will. But I’m going to disregard all of that for a second and talk about a great pop tune she released in 2005. You know the one I mean. You can hear it in your head now, can’t you? “Crazy Chick”. What a song! A song so great it instantly made Charlotte Church the best Welsh pop star since Bonnie Tyler. Duffy gave it a shot, Marina’s trying her best (even if she is from Monmouth), but for pure, unadulterated thrills and a bass line I’m sure Prince must have been jealous of at the time, "Crazy Chick" can’t be beaten.
– George Griffiths
MERLIN IS THE DEFINITIVE "WELSH WIZARD". THE TOWN IN SOUTH WEST WALES OF CARMARTHEN ("CAERFYRDDIN") LITERALLY MEANS MERLIN’S FORT. THIS ENIGMATIC SORCERER AND THE TALES SURROUNDING HIM HAVE SPAWNED COUNTLESS RIP-OFFS IN LITERATURE, CINEMA AND TV. TOLKIEN WAS HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY THESE STORIES WHEN WRITING LORD OF THE RINGS, AND HE EVEN TAUGHT MEDIEVAL WELSH AT UNIVERSITY. GAME OF THRONES OR A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE AS THE NOVELS ARE CALLED IS BASICALLY ONE LONG, RAMBLING FAN-FICTION OF THE MABINOGION. JK ROWLING’S ENTIRE FUCKING HARRY POTTER SERIES IS BASED AROUND OUR MYTHOLOGY OF WIZARDS – AND YET WHAT SORT OF RECOGNITION, IF ANY, DOES WALES GET IN THE BOOKS? OH YEAH, THE "COMMON WELSH GREEN" DRAGON, WHO HAS "A DISTINCTIVE MUSICAL ROAR" AND MAINLY FEEDS ON SHEEP. ABSOLUTELY TAKING THE PISS.
AS IF THIS SORT OF MOCKERY WASN’T ENOUGH, IN ALMOST ALL THE MAJOR ADAPTATIONS AND IMAGINATIONS OF MERLIN AND THE MYTHOLOGY SURROUNDING HIM, LIKE DISNEY’S SWORD IN THE STONE OR GUY RITCHIE’S KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, THE WELSH HAVE BEEN WASHED FROM THEIR OWN STORYTELLING AND ASSIMILATED INTO ENGLISH FOLKLORE, WHICH IS IMPRESSIVE GIVEN THE CENTRAL STORY ARC OF THESE TALES IS BASED AROUND FIGHTING THE ANGLO-SAXONS – REMARKABLE EVEN BY ENGLAND’S STANDARDS OF APPROPRIATION. THE CHARACTER OF MERLIN, ALONG WITH OTHER ARTHURIAN LEGENDS, IS VITAL TO WELSH CULTURAL HERITAGE AND WE MUST REMEMBER THAT IT IS OURS. MAYBE THEN ALL THESE CUNTS WHO PROFIT OF IT MIGHT FEEL INDEBTED TO PUSH TOURISM OR AT LEAST A FEW ACTING ROLES OUR WAY.
Gelert The Dog
For our thousands of years of mythology and folklore, no story encapsulates the fierce passion, bravery and loyalty of Wales more than Gelert.
Gelert was the favourite dog of Prince Llywelyn the Great, who, one day, returned from a hunt to find his infant son dead and Gelert covered in blood. The Prince stabs Gelert to death, then quickly realises Gelert was only covered in blood because he’d killed a wolf – lying dead nearby – who had attacked the child. The Prince goes spare with remorse and buries Gelert outside the castle walls, but is haunted by the dog’s dying yelp and never smiles again. His burial place is now a lovely monument, which thousands of people visit every year. The stones are only 200 years old, whereas this tale takes place in the year 1200, but who cares about insignificant little details like that.
– Emma Garland
Russell T Davies
Russell T Davies’ record speaks for itself. He brought gay culture to prime-time TV in 1999 with the seminal Queer As Folk, won basically all the awards for last year’s A Very English Scandal and re-defined Saturday night TV with his reboot of Doctor Who (I don’t care what you say, those first four series are perfect). Better still: he’s given back to Wales along the way. The production of Doctor Who and its many spin-offs was based almost entirely in Cardiff, and it revitalised the city as a media hotspot, with the building of Bad Wolf studios in the Bay.
Davies’ work has dealt with demons (Century Falls), evil sentient computers (Dark Season) and government conspiracies (Torchwood: Children of Earth) but he always manages to make these stories human. His characters could be anyone. His writing is, I think, intrinsically Welsh too; warm, honest, open and speckled with humour even in the face of tragedy. Perhaps this is his greatest achievement, behind all the posturing and concepts – all of space and time itself – his stories are affecting, and enduring, because they are so personal.
– George Griffiths
ONE OF THE GREAT WELSH ACTORS, RICHARD BURTON WAS RENOWNED FOR HIS CAPTIVATING PRESENCE, SONOROUS BARITONE – WHICH IS SO ENTRANCING IT’S SINCE BEEN USED TO FLOG CARS – AND RECEIVED SEVEN OSCAR NOMINATIONS. ALTHOUGH, HE’S PROBABLY JUST AS WELL REMEMBERED FOR HIS FAMOUS AND TURBULENT RELATIONSHIP WITH ELIZABETH TAYLOR. THEY MET AND FELL IN LOVE ON THE SET OF CLEOPATRA, DESPITE BOTH BEING MARRIED AT THE TIME, AND THE VATICAN DENOUNCED THEIR AFFAIR AS "EROTIC VAGRANCY". THEY WERE THE BIGGEST STARS IN THE WORLD. TWICE MARRIED, TWICE DIVORCED.
KNOWN TO SAY TYPICALLY GOOD THINGS LIKE “I HATE CHURCHILL AND ALL HIS KIND", BURTON WAS FIRST AND FOREMOST A PROUD WELSHMAN. WHEN LAMENTING HAVING TO LEAVE WALES TO PURSUE HIS ACTING CAREER, HE SAID, "WE SHOULD SPLIT FROM THE ENGLISH, PUT A WALL ROUND, MAKE THEM SHOW PASSPORTS, THEN WE CAN HAVE OUR OWN TAX STRUCTURE, BUILD AN ENORMOUS STUDIO IN WALES AND A NATIONAL THEATRE AND WE WILL ALL LIVE HERE FOREVER."
If you took the concept of Swansea city centre and put a Welsh rugby shirt on it, you would get Simone Webber – a pint swigging, tit-flashing contestant on Season 3 of the ITV reality series Ladette to Lady. Despite going on a show whose entire premise is shaming working class women for having childhood traumas and not automatically knowing how to use a pastry fork, Simone was one of the few "ladettes" to give the repugnant challenges of the 1950s finishing school a genuine go. Perhaps it’s her army background, perhaps it’s the attitude of hard graft for little reward bred into the Welsh, but my national pride has never been higher than when, after a three-episode streak of self-imposed sobriety and "good behaviour", Simone was reprimanded for something inconsequential, before flatly telling the witch Gill Harbord, "You’ve pissed me off, now."
– Emma Garland
Derek The Weatherman
Welsh weather is notoriously fickle, and by that I mean it’s a bastard. There are simply too many mountains to facilitate one kind of weather for more than three hours, but throughout all this turbulence, this chaos, you have Derek The Weatherman. The port in the storm of life, Derek is part of our national consciousness. It may all be going to shit, but every night at 6:50PM sharp, Derek will be there on BBC Wales Today, wearing a fun tie and a smile, promising "some dry sunny spells" in front of a backdrop of dark clouds, as he seemingly has been doing since time immemorial.
For as long as I’ve been alive, Derek has been on the TV. And he doesn’t just present the weather, he also has a lovely little programme where he basically just goes on loads of nice walks around scenic Wales. Derek has a media empire! He’s basically the Kris Jenner of Barry.
– George Griffiths
Diamonds are forever, and so is Shirley Bassey’s legacy. A Cardiff queen who ascended to fame in the 1950s and has been killing it with her unique voice, feathered wardrobe and stunning Welsh accent ever since, Bassey built her legendary status on the back of writing and singing three of the Bond theme tunes – "Goldfinger", "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker" – as well as being the first ever Welsh person to get a number one single in 1959.
As with most Welsh icons, Bassey is preceded by the legends told about her. While accepting an honorary doctorate at the University of Berklee in 1999, David Bowie explained how, in the band’s early days, they would often perform in working men's clubs, and in one particularly grim establishment he had the misfortune of needing a piss. He asked the promoter where the toilet was, and was pointed to a sink at the bottom of the hallway. Bowie proclaimed he couldn’t possibly piss in the sink, to which the promoter replied, "Listen, son, if it’s good enough for Shirley Bassey it’s good enough for you."
– Gina Tonic
There are a few figures in history it feels like the world wasn’t good enough for, and Richey Edwards is one of them. Surviving members of the Manic Street Preachers aside, I’m not sure there has ever been a more gentle, more humble, more genuinely pained soul in music than Richey, whose poetic and political lyrics were the backbone of the Manics’ first three albums (and the lingering spirit of their fourth). Whether they were touched on in interviews or buried beneath glam-rock riffs, many of his ideas about cultural decay and first world melancholia preceded those Mark Fisher would go on to interrogate in the early-2000s. But for all his universal observations about the human condition, Richey's bleak outlook was shaped specifically by the void Thatcherism created in South Wales. He was able to articulate the feeling of growing up somewhere shit and identifying with it, but still longing for more.
– Emma Garland
The Welsh Mam
WHENEVER I LOOK AT THE RED DRAGON ON OUR FLAG I UNQUESTIONABLY THINK OF IT AS A "WELSH MAM" – A BEAUTIFUL, PROTECTIVE SLAYER OF SCARCITY, HARDSHIP AND WOES.
ANYONE WHO HAS THE MISFORTUNE OF HAVING A PARTNER WITH A WELSH MAM WILL KNOW THEY ARE ALL UNBEARABLY GIANT ADULT SHAPED BABIES BECAUSE OF THIS. THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF HIRAETH – A WELSH WORD MANY ARGUE CANNOT BE TRANSLATED, BUT LOOSELY MEANS "A LONGING FOR HOME OR AS IF SOMETHING MISSING" – IS ALMOST ENTIRELY DOWN TO WELSH MAMS.
WALES IS A NATION STEEPED IN THE TRADITIONS OF MATRIARCHY – SEEMINGLY DATING BACK MILLENNIA TO THE LAWS OF HYWEL DDA, WHICH, IN COMPLETE CONTRAST TO THE REST OF EUROPE, GAVE LEGAL RIGHTS TO THE STATUS OF OUR WOMEN. IN MANY AREAS DURING THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, THE PUNISHING NATURE OF THE WELSH MAM’S WORK WAS SUCH THAT THE DEATH RATE WAS ACTUALLY HIGHER AMONG WOMEN THAN MEN. THESE WOMEN, DIMINUTIVE IN SIZE BUT COLOSSAL IN PRESENCE, HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THE LIFEBLOOD OF OUR COMMUNITIES, AND THE STORY OF WALES IS NOTHING WITHOUT THEM.
Images used in collage: Robert Earnshaw, via; Doris, via; Excalibur, via; Anthony Hopkins, via; Shirley Bassey, via; Richard Burton, via; Charlotte Church, via; tombstone, via; Simone Webber, via; Adrian Street, via; Richey Edwards, via.