Bedd Dorti: A Legendary Witch’s Grave
If you go walking in northern Meirionnydd, on the banks of Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf, north-west of Llandecwyn, be sure to take care and watch out for a small mound covered in white stones. Your life might just depend on it!
According to legend, many years ago, near Llandecwyn, Meirionnydd, there lived a reputed witch by the name of Dorti. Unfortunately, like many early modern Welsh women, including those accused of witchcraft, we know more about Dorti’s death than we do her life, and what we know of that comes through oral tradition and folklore. Her death came, not through trial under the Witchcraft Act, but by ordinary people, who, fearful of her alleged malice and power to do harm, hurled her from a precipice on the north side of Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf. She was buried where she landed in a place thereafter known as ‘Bedd Dorti’ .
Dorti’s alleged powers continued after her death, however. According to tradition, if you pass by her grave, be sure to leave a white stone and repeat the following rhyme:
Bara gwyn yn llosgi
Dŵr ar y tân
I olchi’r llestri
In vengeance for the violence done to her, Dorti’s spirit will pursue any who fail to do this, and they will die within a year.
Like much of Europe, ideas of magic and the preternatural, including witchcraft, formed an important aspect of Welsh culture and belief throughout the early modern period. It impacted on people’s everyday lives and their understanding of the world around them. Accusations of witchcraft were usually deeply emotional, rooted in social and community strife, and were not taken lightly, as numerous cases for slander brought by those suffering such accusations show. However, Wales never suffered the ‘witch-crazes’ seen in other areas, such as England, Scotland, and Britain’s North American colonies. Although records related to Welsh witchcraft trials in the Court of Great Session survive in surprising numbers, only thirty-four court cases prosecuting forty-one people have been identified, dating from between 1588 and 1699. Of these women and men put on trial, only eight were convicted, and only five sentenced to death. Over a similar period, across the border in England, around 2,000 people were tried and 300 executed. This lack of formal prosecution does not mean that those suspected of witchcraft weren’t persecuted, however, even suffering violence at the hands of their own neighbours.
Although few accusations of witchcraft were brought to trail and thus survive in the legal record, evidence of the power and importance of these beliefs are recorded in other ways, including within the built and historical environment investigated by the Royal Commission. These include architectural features such as protective marks within homes, archaeological finds such as concealed objects such as shoes or ‘witch bottles’ in houses, and even place names, as is the case with Bedd Dorti.
Sometime in the early twentieth century, Wilfred J. Hemp (1882–1962), possibly while serving as the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Wales, was told about the site and the legend by the Rev. J. C. Morrace, who had witnessed a boy throw a stone on Bedd Dorti while travelling to Llandecwyn Church. He informed the Royal Commission and the site was included, without a precise location, in our Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in … Merioneth (1921, p. 78). No excavation was done at the time, but many years later, around the turn of the twenty-first century, the mound was cut into during work by Dŵr Cymru, revealing it to be a natural rock ridge So much for the story.
In 1943, whilst serving as the Royal Commission’s Secretary from his home in Criccieth, Hemp took a walk along the banks of Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf with the owner of nearby Plas Llandecwyn, who had been told Dorti’s story as small boy. Pointing out a collection of white stones on a mound near the dam at the north end of the lake, he informed Hemp that they were not in their original position, having been displaced in the construction of the dam. Let’s just hope, whether the stones lie near Dorti’s grave or not, that they still give her peace.
Adam N. Coward, Library and Enquiries Officer
Royal Commission’s entry for ‘Bedd Dorti’ (NPRN 800208) on Coflein: https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/800208/
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s entry for ‘Bedd Dorti, Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf’ (PRN 1437) on Archwilio: https://archwilio.org.uk/arch/query/page.php?watprn=GAT1437
W. J. Hemp, ‘Two Cairns’, Transactions of the Caernarvonshire Historical Society, 5 (1944), 101–102.
Richard Suggett, Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wales (Atramentous Press: 2018).