Legends of Saints and Birds – The Curlew’s Nest

detail of an illustration of Saint Beuno and the Curlew from the book 'Legends of Saints and Birds', by Agnes Aubrey Hilton, 1908This is a tale of Saint Beuno. He was the son of Hywgi ap Gwynllyw Filwr ap Glywys ap Tegid ap Cadell Deyrnllwg, and his mother’s name was Perfferen. She was daughter to Llewddyn Luyddog, of Dinas Eiddyn in the North. And his father’s brother was Saint Cattwg of Llancarvan, and his mother was related to Saint Kentigern of Strathclyde; and as he had Saint Gwynllyw Filwr and his wife Gwladys for grandparents, we may see that he came of a family of Saints.

He was a native of Powys, and Tangwn, son of the bard-saint Talhaiarn, taught him when he was a child. Beuno would listen to the songs Tangwn sang – songs made by Talhaiarn, or maybe by Taliessin, that bard of the “Radiant Brow.” Perhaps Tangwn told little Beuno the tale of how the magpie tried to teach the woodpigeon to build a tidy nest. This is the tale. Once upon a time there lived a magpie who was sorry to see that the woodpigeon did not know how to build a tidy nest, and he said he would teach his friend. So he began to show how the nest should be made, and the pigeon sat on a tree, looking on. As the lesson proceeded the wood-pigeon bowed to the magpie, cooing:

“Mi wn, Mi wn, Mi wn.”
“I know, I know, I know.”

The magpie was pleased to think that his friend was so apt a pupil, but then, before he had time to utter another word of instruction, that pigeon bowed again, exclaiming: “I know, I know, I know.”

Well, at last the magpie became angry.

“Since you know, do it then,” he said.

And that is why the woodpigeon’s nest is so untidy even to this day, for the pigeon thought he was too clever to need teaching. Thus a saying has arisen which is quoted to those folk who think they know all about subjects of which they are ignorant: “As the Woodpigeon said to the Magpie, I know!”

When Beuno was a man, Ynyr Gwent, son-in-law to Vortimer, gave him a piece of land and the people dwelling on it, to form a sacred tribe. Here Beuno lived for some time, but later on he went to Berriew, in Montgomeryshire, where he was again given some land. Now, naturally the Welsh folk hated the Saxons, the conquering tribes who had come to Britain to slay the British people, driving all those they did not kill into the fastnesses of the hills of Wales and Cornwall; and Beuno hated even the sound of a Saxon voice.

Now, it happened that while he was in Berriew one day he heard a Saxon shouting. The man was urging his dogs to pursue a hare on the farther bank of the Severn. The Saxon words annoyed Beuno; he thought how the Saxons had hounded down the Welsh folk as this one was seeking to slay the hare, and, being angry, he turned to his disciples, saying:

“My sons, put on your shoes and let us leave this place, for the nation of this man hath a strange language which is abominable, and I heard his voice. They have invaded this land, and will keep it.”

So they departed from Berriew, going first to stay with Saint Tyssilio, and afterwards to Gwyddelwern, in Merioneth. Beuno did not stay long at Gwyddelwern, but went to Flintshire. It was while he was there that he healed Winifred, the virtuous daughter of Teuyth, the man with whom he lodged.

It happened on this wise. One day, when Winifred’s father and mother were absent, a youth of royal blood who was out hunting grew thirsty, and coming to Teuyth’s home asked for water wherewith to quench his thirst.

Winifred was alone, and the youth, perceiving her great beauty, began to speak to her in a manner that was not fitting. The maiden, wishful to escape his insults, ran from him to the little chapel where Beuno was, but the young man pursued her to the chapel door, where he struck her with his sword in anger that she had run from him. He struck deeper than he meant the red blood flowed from the throat of the girl, who fell to the ground. Hearing an outcry, Beuno hastened from the chapel. There, fallen across the doorway, lay Winifred, the maiden he had taught, while the young man was hastily galloping away, and where the blood trickled to the ground a spring of clear water bubbled up. Under Beuno’s loving care Winifred soon recovered, but to this day there is the famous well of Saint Winifred that holy well in Flintshire, where sick and infirm people may bathe in its healing waters.

Saint Beuno moved from place to place until at last he went to Clynnog, and here he ended his days.

Now, while he lived at Clynnog on Sundays he used to go to preach at Llanddwyn, off the coast of Anglesey. He used to walk on the sea to cross from the mainland, as easily, we are told, as if it had been dry land. And with him he carried the book from which he used to preach and read to the people. In those days all books had to be written by hand, and if a copy were lost it would take months, perhaps years, to re-write it. So books were very rare and precious. The Irish Saints used to carry their books in satchels; these satchels they hung from their girdles, so that the books should be in no danger of being lost. Perhaps Beuno did not possess a satchel; anyhow, this Sunday he started to walk on the sea carrying his book under his arm.

Coming back again the waves were higher, so that he found it more difficult to walk than he had on his outward journey. However, he struggled on, and had nearly crossed to Clynnog when he perceived that his book had gone.

Well, there was a sad time then! Poor Saint Beuno knew that the waves would toss the book about, maybe carry it away to Ireland, or even it might be washed ashore and get into the hands of a Saxon. And he was much troubled. However, he felt that as the waves were getting more rough and boisterous all the time he had better make for Clynnog, trusting that when he went to Anglesey again he might find the book had been washed ashore there.

So, much troubled, in heaviness of heart, he made for the land. When he reached it, he saw a curlew sitting on a stone, and, being fond of birds, he spoke to it.

“Brother Curlew, tell me if ever thou findest a book in thy flight over the waves,” he said jestingly. And the curlew opened his mouth and cried after the manner of curlews.

“Thou could’st carry it well in that long beak of thine,” said Beuno, and again the curlew cried. But as the Saint drew nigh to the bird, he saw that on the stone by its side lay the book he had lost.

“Brother Curlew,” he exclaimed, “for this service that thou hast rendered me I will ask the Creator’s especial protection for thee and thine.”

And he fell on his knees in the sand.

Then he took the book with him; and we may hope that, learning wisdom, he made a satchel to carry it in before he crossed the sea to Llanddwyn again.

But his prayer for the curlew was answered, for that is the reason why it is hard to find the curlew’s nest, even to this day.

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton