Yes, we all know that ghosts don’t exist, but it’s one thing to believe that and another not to walk slightly faster through the graveyard when you’re alone after dark…
Halloween may have become a tacky American import, but it’s spooky foundations are believed to be in the pagan Celtic festivals such as the Welsh Calan Gaeaf that marked the transition into winter.
It was believed that at this time of year the boundary between our world and the Otherworld became thinner and this allowed gods and spirits to invade our world.
What isn’t in doubt is that, as days shorten, the clocks go back, spiders and other critters invade the home, and the decaying leaves fall from the now skeletal trees, there is a spookier feel to this time of year.
Which means that it’s a perfect time to gather around and scare each other silly with a few ghostly tales from Wales…
- Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, Kidwelly Castle
Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was Princess of Deheubarth, the youngest daughter of Gruffydd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd, and his wife, Angharad.
In 1136 Gwenllian’s husband, Gruffydd ap Rhys, left her to seek reinforcements in his fight against the invading Normans.
With her husband gone, Gwenllian took matters into her own hands and defended her lands against the invading army.
Despite her actions inspiring a comeback that held the Normans at bay for decades, Gwenllian herself fell near Kidwelly Castle.
Her headless body is still seen roaming the field, called Maes Gwenllian, where she was captured and mercilessly executed.
- Lord Penrhyn’s ghost, Penrhyn Castle, Bangor
Penrhyn castle is a spooky spot, said to be haunted by the ghost Lady Alice Douglas Pennant, amongst others. But perhaps the scariest ghost there is that of Lord Penrhyn himself.
His is often seen roaming what was his sitting room or one of his bedrooms.
The family’s massive wealth was made from the transatlantic slave trade, Jamaican sugar plantations, and the back-breaking work of thousands of workers at the Penrhyn slate quarry.
Perhaps it’s one of the few locations in Wales where the truth is bloodier and scarier than the legend.
- The Devil himself, Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigion
No doubt one of the spookiest locations in Wales, Devil’s Brideg is unusual in that three separate bridges are coexistent, each one built upon the previous bridge.
The original bridge is medieval and the second one, a stone structure, built in 1753 and upgraded in 1777 and in 1814, was erected when the original bridge was thought to be unstable.
According to a legend the devil appeared to an old woman here and offer to build her the bridge on condition that he could claim the soul of the first to cross over it.
Once the bridge was completed, she threw a crust of bread over the bridge, and her dog ran across to eat it, and the devil was left with only the soul of the dog.
However, the name Devil’s Brideg is common across Europe where unusual medieval bridges exist. And there is often as an associated legend suggesting that it was built in exchange for a soul.
At the Welsh Devil’s Bridge, an added spookiness factor has been added by this location’s connection with the Hinterland / Y Gwyll series, where the hero DCI Mathias investigates child abuse at a home for children.
- Toili, Llangattock
The Toili are phantom funerals that have been witnessed across mid-Wales. Up to the first half of the last century, rural residents would spot the funerals go past and only realise later that they have witnessed a premonition of someone’s death.
The most memorable of these tales relates to the village off Llangattock in Powys where a farmer saw a phantom funeral travelling through the air above him. The next day it snowed very heavily and the mourners had to trudge through the thick snow above the hedgerows.
There are fewer recent sightings of Toili, perhaps because a phantom hearse going past at 40mph is harder to spot.
A related tale common in mid-Wales is the canwyll gorff, or corpse candle. It is said that when someone dies their soul is seen as a whispering flame travelling across the land and into the churchyard.
When a child dies, the light travelling to the churchyard is slightly fainter.
- Ghost of the Anglesey Arms, Caernarfon
The Anglesey Arms is a traditional Welsh inn built in the shadow of Caernarfon Castle and overlooking the Menai Strait.
On sunny days a place on the wall outside the pub is at a premium as the people of Caernarfon enjoy a pint while watching the sun go down to the west.
But not everyone has always enjoyed a visit to this part of town. Formerly the busy port’s customs house, it was built near the spot where prisoners were executed.
Visitors to the tavern have described seeing a ghostly figure hanging by the neck in front of a juke box, and glasses on the bar moving by themselves or hovering in mid-air.
The upstairs rooms in the pub are also said to be haunted, with guests describing footsteps, handles moving of their own accord and keys rattling in locks.
- The Angelystor, Llangernyw
The Angelystor (recording angel) sounds like a winged beaurocrat but is a particularly spooky spectre said to occupy a graveyard in Llangernyw.
The tradition holds that every year at Halloween, anyone approaching the yew in the churchyard of St. Digain’s Church in the Conwy village will hear the Angelystor’s booming voice.
The voice reads out the name of parishioners who will die in the following year. But legend has it however that anyone disturbing the recording angel will have their names added to its grisly list.
- The spectral ape, Carew Castle
It’s one thing to witness the ghost of a human being, another to come face to face with a hideous ghostly ape.
Yes, even before Pirates of the Caribbean, evil ghost monkeys were a thing in Welsh legend.
According to the myth, Sir Rowland Rees who was a tenant at the Pembrokeshire castle in the 17th century had rescued the ape from a wrecked Spanish galleon.
After his daughter ran off with the son of a local merchant, the father confronted him in his room. Rather than come to terms, the angry Sir Rowland Rees ordered his well-trained monkey to kill the man.
Despite being injured, the merchant managed to escape, but not before cursing Sir Rowland Rees and his macabre macaque sidekick.
When servants came up to the master’s room in the morning they found him dead in a pool of blood and the ape had fled.
The ghostly ape is still seen on dark and stormy nights howling from the top of the northwest tower of the castle.
- The ghost dogs of Annwn, Cwm Cych
Another ghostly animal you would likely not want to come across at night is one of the specteral dogs of Annwn, which have white bodies and red ears.
This pack of hounds is mentioned right at the start of the Mabinogion, the oldest Welsh legends in existance, and hunt alongside Arawn, King of the Underworld.
In the Mabinogion the dogs are said to be hunting in Cwm Cych, on the border of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.
The entrance to Annwn is said to be the Ffynonne waterfalls on the Dulas River which flows into the Cych.
The Cŵn Annnwn are said to also often hunt for souls alongside a wizened old hag called Mallt-y-Nos and the sound of their eerie howling is a sign of an impending death in the area.
- Gwrach y Rhibyn, near the River Tywi
This witch is so hideous she has given rise to the Welsh language saying ‘As ugly as Gwrach y Rhibyn’ – as Ugley as the Rhibyn Witch.
She is said to crawl in the ditches of country lanes on dark and misty nights and come gurgling and screeching out, unfolding a pair of leathery, bat-like wings.
If you’re running at night and trying to beat your previous time on your fitness watch, just imagine Gwrach y Rhibyn and run a little faster.
If that wasn’t scary enough, she is known to slither up to the windows of houses at night and tap against the glass with her long fingernails.
It seems that she has a sad story to tell, as legends suggest that she can be heard crying about a drowned child that was taken from her. Perhaps that’s why she’s burrowing around in the ditch.
- The Black Nun, Llangrannog
Staying at the Urdd campsite at Llangrannog is many children’s first experience of being away from home for the night.
So it’s not always helpful when the other kids in your dorm begin filling your seven-year-old head with tales of a Black Nun who takes your eyes out at night and puts them back in before you wake up.
The name ‘Black Nun’ is also frequently scribbled on bunk beds and walls, to the annoyance of the cleaning staff at the campsite.
In some versions of the legend, the Black Nun is more sadistic, and has killed a girl and hidden her body under the bunk in a certain room – usually, whichever one you’re staying in.
However, the legend may not have a Welsh origin at all as it bears a remarkable resemblance to a 1978 episode of the TV series Armchair Thriller which featured a Nazgûl-esque faceless nun called the Black Nun.