What defines the British countryside for you? Perhaps its the green hills, the golden fields or the endless brown roads. For Dafydd ap Gwilym it was the sound of the tawny owls which just wouldn’t leave him alone.
Species: ‘Y Dylluan’ (the owl), most probably a tawny owl (Strix aluco).
Source: One of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem called ‘Y Dylluan’.
Highlights: By the time he writes this poem, Dafydd is so crazy from being kept up all night that he threatens to take a torch to the woodland to make the owls shut up. He’s a great inspiration to us all.
In honour of Halloween, here is Lake’s (2007) translation of ‘y Dylluan’ (the Owl), a poem by the fourteenth century Welsh author Dafydd ap Gwilym. Sadly Dafydd ap Gwilym was not the kind of man to enjoy a good spooky owl call. In the following poem he complains that owls are interrupting his sleep so much he is tempted to go and set fire to the woods.
It’s a pity that the fair owl
on a branch will not be silent.
It will not let me say my prayers,
it will not be quiet as long as the stars are visible.
I cannot sleep a wink or rest at all,
woe [is me] from the hindrance.
It seeks a house on the bats’ ridge
to shelter from showers of rain and snow.
Every night, [it gives] me very little thrill,
in my ears, pennies of memory,
when I close, painful greeting,
my eyes, respected lords,
this wakes me, I have not slept,
the song of the owl and its voice,
and its constant hoarse shout and its screech
and its vain peroration from its mouth.
From then until the break of day,
As true as I live, unhappy vigour,
it sings, sad wailing,
‘hoo–di–hoo’, lively exclamation.
Great energy, by Christ,
it incites the dogs of the night.
It’s a slut, with its endless double call,
big–headed one, miserable call;
broad forehead, breast the colour of rowan,
old wide–eyed mouser;
busy one of contemptible appearance,
rotten is its court, tin–coloured.
Loud is its babble throughout the woods.
What an awful song above the chains of the trees,
and its face, visage of a mortal being,
and its form, ghoul of the birds.
Every bird attacks it,
filthy outcast. Isn’t its existence a monstrosity?
This one is more loquacious on the hillside
at night than the nightingale from the slope.
During the day it doesn’t shift its head
from a big hollow tree, wise behaviour.
It would howl freely, I know its face,
it is Gwyn ap Nudd’s bird.
Chopsy witch singing to thieves,
a curse on its tongue and its tune!
In order to drive the owl
away from me I have a song:
whilst I suffer the ice [of winter]
I will light a fire in every ivy bush.
Dafydd ap Gwilym is the most important Welsh poet of the fourteenth century. Whether writing love poems or satires he is best known for his humorous, profane and often self-deprecating style.
Lake (2007) has provided some useful notes on the text on the Dafydd ap Gwilym website. You’ll find more there in Welsh than there are in English.
For the most part these notes are fantastic, but I would argue about the identification made there. Here’s why:
There are five species of owl commonly found in Britain today. Of these we can immediately rule out the little owl (Athene noctua), which was introduced to Britain in the 1870-80s (Yalden, 2009, p.221).. The rest can be tested based on four criteria extracted from the text:
- The owl in the text is most obvious from its call. It has a ‘constant hoarse shout’ and a ‘screech’. It also hoots ‘hw-ddy-hw’ (hoo-thee-hoo) with a double call. Some owls hoot differently at different times of year. To clarify, this poem is taking place in ‘falling snow and rain’ and in the ‘rhew’ (frost).
- Dafydd aims to drive out our owl by burning ivy bushes. He hears it throughout the woods, from the hillside, above the trees and it nests in a hollow-trunk. This is a woodland bird.
- Dafydd calls it ‘llygodwraig’ (the mouse lady), and it only emerges at night.
- It has a big head, and a broad forehead like all owls, but also ‘griafal groth’ (a rowan-coloured belly). Presumably by rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) Dafydd means red like the rowan berries.
- This bird is solitary and hides to avoid being mobbed by other birds.
Bromwich (1982, p.98) has suggested the owl in the poem is a long-eared owl based primarily on Witherby et al.’s (1938) description of its call which involved a cooing ‘oo-oo-oo’ and a chirruping like silver coins. The similarities between Witherby’s description and Dafydd’s are significant, but I do not believe they are enough to justify identification of this species as a long-eared owl. Despite Bromwich’s assurances, the long-eared owl was always far rarer in Britain than the tawny owl which have always been the most common owl and one of the most common birds of prey (Yalden, 2009, p.67). Further the ‘certain times of year’ when long-eared owls do make a great deal of noise are all during the nesting season (Feb-July), not in winter when Dafydd’s poem is set. During the winter long-eared-owls are quieter than tawny owls.
The tawny owl fits the description better. It is a woodland owl, like the long-eared owl, but unlike the long-eared owl it frequently nests in ivy and in hollow trees. It is nocturnal, and although it’s belly isn’t really red like rowan berries, it is called the ‘tawny’ owl for its orange-brown colour. It is solitary, and it is the most commonly mobbed owl. It is also the noisiest, and is often heard throughout the year.
Most importantly though, the tawny owl’s call more exactly matches Dafydd’s description. The tawny owl is called a ‘budrog’ (slut) because of it’s double call. This part of the poem makes sense in the context of the tawny owls’ call and response with their partners. ‘Twit-twoo’ (‘ke-wick-hoo’) is actually the sound of a male and female bird calling to each other. The long-eared owls calls repeat themselves but do not change. oo-oo-oo. This does not really fit the ‘hw-ddy-hw’, but the tawny owl always calls in the same pattern with one ‘hoo’ sound, followed by a tripartite ‘hoo-thethe-hoo’. Here’s an example:
Video by Jackie Stewart – seeing tawny owls out in day is unusual.
Owls were very low on the hierarchy of birds in medieval Welsh literature, and therefore it’s not surprising to see some of the connotations the bird has in this poem. Dafydd calls the owl Gwynn ap Nudd’s bird. Gwynn ap Nudd was the lord of Annwn, the Underworld in late medieval legend. The owl is said to ‘annos cwn y nos’ (drive the hounds of the night), meaning that the sound of the owl presages and perhaps calls-forth hell-hounds. No wonder being turned into an owl was a suitable punishment for Blodeuwedd, who conspired to murder her husband.
On the other hand, it is still heartening that despite Dafydd’s obvious antipathy towards the bird, he was still able to describe the tawny owl in sufficient detail to make identification easy. He noticed the bird’s particular call, it’s habit of hiding in ivy, and the way it is chased by smaller birds. This supports the theory that the tawny owl has always been common in Britain. More importantly it also once again demonstrates the impressive species knowledge which normal people in Britain once had, most likely lost in the Early Modern urbanisation period.
Bromwich R (1982) Dafydd ap Gwilym Poems. (2003 ed.) Gomer Press, Llandysul.
Hume, R. (2002) Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. (DK, London)
Witherby HF; Jourdain FCR; Ticehurst NF; Tucker, B (1938) The Handbook of British Birds, vol. 2. H.F&G. Witherby, London.
Yalden D (2009) The History of British Birds. Oxford University Press.