This is much more than a simple guidebook. It is one man’s vision of a sacred landscape. Today, we are much more conscious of the concept of sacred landscape, as exemplified supremely by the world heritage status of the Stonehenge and Avebury region in Wiltshire, and by the megalithic maelstrom of the south-west of Ireland, and Neil McDonald is fully aware of its application to the ‘mystical’ isle of Anglesey, as he describes it on his first page.
He conjures up the megalithic magic of the island, off the north-west coast of Wales, in an illustrated volume, slim in bulk but big on ideas, which is unique in both concept and editorial approach. It certainly makes one want to visit Anglesey to probe the Stone Age secrets it guards in one’s own mytho-geographical odyssey – the kind of outcome which is surely the mark of success for any such publication.
Evidence of human habitation on the island goes back to 7,000BC although, as Neil points out, continuous occupation may have begun much earlier. With its high concentration of megalithic sites, Anglesey is bound to be one of those places where the ancient landscape can boost one’s personal energies in a significant way, where one enters into the collective memory of our ancestors which remains rendered in these venerable stones.
Passionate about his subject, and extremely well-informed about it too, Neil has shepherded many groups of captivated visitors around Anglesey in recent years under his Megalithic Tours enterprise, so he knows the territory to advantage, being a reliable guide to the hidden as well as the accessible.
There are personable and informative descriptions and discussions of the Bryn Celli Ddu and Presaddfed chambered tombs – the former being the most important Welsh prehistoric site – the Bodowyr cromlech, the Mein Hirion standing stones, and a range of other burial chambers and imposing megaliths, including the hard-to-find, such as the Bryn yr Hen Bobl burial chamber.
Neil generally resists the urge to romanticise, placing the monuments in a proper historical perspective, blending the mystical with the material, but recognizing their importance as the locations of religious ritual and ceremony, and bringing in the local myths and legends associated with them. And he always mentions the view!
However, he does not restrict himself to the Stone Age, as there are also chapters which cover Penmon Priory and St Seiriol’s Hermitage and sacred well, the Parys Mountain copper mine, and Holyhead’s St Cybi’s Church and Caer Gybi Roman fort.
All this makes for a very rounded account of Anglesey’s deep history and distinctive culture which doesn’t fail to register the isle’s special atmosphere and allure.
The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded that when his fellow countryman and governor of Britain Suetonius Paulinus took his army to Anglesey, then known as Mona, in the early 60s AD, an ‘enemy host’ confronted him across the Menai Strait with druids ‘raising their hands to the sky and shouting dreadful curses’, terrifying the soldiers. Among the armed men across the water, ‘dashed women in black attire like Furies, with hair disheveled, waving flaming torches’.
This dramatic snapshot of druidic ferment may well be an invention by the unreliable historian, but today’s ‘invaders’ – we megalithic marauders and other tourists – are not confronted with any such antics on the part of the island‘s inhabitants, although much that is wild and mysterious still lies within its shores.
Geoff Ward, Mysterious Planet, September 2010.
Neil McDonald has been exploring ancient sites for many years, and regularly organises tours. For more information about Neil’s books and tours, please visit his website.
Paperback: 100 pages
Published: 1 June 2010
Distribution: Gardner’s, Bertram’s