I have just returned home from a holiday in Europe which, among other things, included a few days in Scotland. The theme of the holiday was touring by train and, quite by accident, we began the Scottish phase of the journey with a night in Edinburgh in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival: pipers in kilts; milling hordes of visitors; and shops selling cashmere (half price if not made in Scotland), tweed, tartan and whiskey.
We went on by train to Inverness (more cashmere and tartan), the Kyle of Lochalsh, Skye (by road) and Fort William, before taking the Caledonian Sleeper to London.
It was a lovely trip. The local trains were especially good, the scenery was marvellous, even in the rain, the opera was fabulous (Don Giovanni in Edinburgh) and we ate in a couple of Michelin star-worthy restaurants. What’s not to like? Well…
I kept finding myself comparing all the tourist stuff to Wales and especially, I found myself comparing the high street book shop/gift shop history offerings to Wales.
When I travel to Britain, I collect books on history, the kind that are not available on the internet: local history; out of print dusty old tomes; obscure local journals; guide books to abbeys and castles etc. Whenever I visit Wales, the offerings seem to be thin. Indeed, in many a Welsh book shop it is impossible to find any books on Welsh history at all. But Scotland? Well, the tourist shops were full of them. Books on the clans; books on the highland clearances; books on Bonnie Prince Charlie…
So why, I ask myself, is there this imbalance?
I think that part of the problem is the way that Welsh history is often written. In particular, the standard trope of medieval political history seems to be a narrative of failure. As A.G. Little put it in his collected lectures on Medieval Wales, Wales failed to become a state.
Gruffudd ap Llewelyn notwithstanding, there never was a true kingdom of all Wales, but a series of small, warring kingdoms/principalities. (On Gruffudd see: Michael and Sean Davies, The Last King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063; and for a fictional account: K.R. Hebdige, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, Son of Destiny, King of Wales.)
Partible inheritance between all acknowledged sons, whether ‘legitimate’ or not, ensured a depressingly long series of fratricidal conflicts. Rulers of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth all fought each other and they showed no particular tendency to unite against the West Saxons or Mercians or their successors, the Norman marcher barons.
But why is this not interesting? Why is this not exciting fodder for film and fable? Let’s face it, in real life, the kings and princes of Wales got up to all manner of devious and bloody behaviour worthy of any episode of Game of Thrones.
May favourite pick for the first block-buster movie about a medieval Welsh hero would be Princess Nest, married to a Norman and abducted by a Welshman. Kari Maund has written a biography of her. (Kari Maund, Princess Nest of Wales, Seductress of the English.) If I remember correctly, she was Gerald of Wales’ grandmother. Now there’s another story worthy of a film.
Anyway, just grumbling. No offence meant to the Scots!