Yr Wyddfa is the tallest mountain in Wales and one of the most iconic natural landmarks in the United Kingdom. To a lot of people, it’s known as Snowdon. In this blog post, we’ll be looking at the linguistic, geological and cultural history of the mountain and what it means to the people of Wales.
We’ll give you a brief lesson on how to pronounce the Welsh names for Snowdon and Snowdonia, discuss why using them is important, study the geological and human history of the region and get stuck into some local myths and legends, too.
First things first, how do you pronounce Yr Wyddfa? For English speakers, it’s not the easiest name to get your head or tongue around, especially if you have little experience of the Welsh language. Spelt phonetically, Yr Wyddfa is said Uhr-With-Va. Not so difficult after all!
But what does the name mean? According to the Snowdonia National Park Authority, Yr Wyddfa roughly translates as grave and was attributed to the mountain because it’s the supposed burial site of the legendary giant, Rhita Gawr. But more on him later.
The English name for the mountain, Snowdon, has its origins in Old English. First snow (which I think we all understand) and dun, a Saxon word used to refer to hills and mountains. This means a complete English translation of the name would be Snow(y) Mountain.
Which brings us on to another fierce debate surrounding the way Yr Wyddfa is named and referred to. Those visitors who aren’t familiar with the region often refer to Yr Wyddfa as Mount Snowdon. This tends to irritate locals who, quite correctly, point out that putting the word mount before a word that already contains a mount equivalent (don or dun) is a bit ridiculous. Mount Snow Mountain just really doesn’t sound right.
There’s one last naming convention to discuss before we move on to talk about the history and culture surrounding Yr Wyddfa. Referring to Yr Wyddfa as Mount Snowdonia is a common mistake amongst tourists. Snowdonia is actually the English name for the wider region around the mountain. So referring to Yr Wyddfa as Mount Snowdonia is wrong on two counts. It uses the redundant Mount and confuses the mountain itself with the region that surrounds it.
In Welsh, the area is called Eryri. This is pronounced Eh-ruh-ree. The name was thought to be related to the Welsh word for eagle, eryr. However, modern theories suggest that it’s derived from Latin. Specifically, oriri, which roughly translates as ‘to rise.’
Throughout this article, we’ll use the Welsh place names when we talk about the mountain and the surrounding region. Why? Well, you may have read about the campaign to encourage the Snowdonia National Park Authority to exclusively use the Welsh Yr Wyddfa and Eryri. This campaign is grounded in both a concern that Welsh place names are being lost and the fact that what we call places and geographical features like mountains, really does matter.
As we’ve already seen, names and language connect us to our history and contribute to our sense of identity. We form communities based around language and we understand the world around us through the language we use. Language is an intrinsic part of who we are.
Which is why many Welsh speakers are concerned that their language and heritage are threatened by the widespread use of English names and the anglicisation of traditions and culture. It’s a problem that’s not unique to Wales.
In Australia, recognition that the name Ayers Rock is rooted in colonialism has resulted in the world-famous landmark reverting to its ancient, aboriginal name, Uluru. In Catalunya and the Basque Country, the Catalan and Euskadi languages are central to local identity and the need to protect these languages from a slow extinction is well understood and enshrined in law.
Even Mount Everest is part of the debate. Should the tallest mountain on the planet, known as Chomolungma in Tibetan, really be named after some old, white guy who never even saw the mountain himself and just happened to be the British Empire’s Surveyor General of India?
At the heart of it all is the issue of protecting and preserving languages and cultures that were historically (and in many cases, still are) suppressed by outside powers. In the past, these languages and those who spoke them were actively suppressed as a means of breaking local resistance and integrating the invaded into the invader’s culture. Today, this suppression may be less aggressive, open and systematic but it still poses a problem.
“For a language to survive and thrive, it needs to be used. And that starts with the names we give to our landmarks, our streets, our homes and our mountains. Eryri is a Welsh language stronghold and Welsh is an important part of who we are and who we want to be. That’s why we prefer Yr Wyddfa and Eryri and really want to encourage their wider use.’
‘Of course, we won’t be upset if you say Snowdon or Snowdonia. But we would love it if you gave Yr Wyddfa a go. Try it out in your mouth, wrap your tongue around it, roll that first r a little and see how it feels. You’ll find it’s very much appreciated by the locals if you do.”
In the distant past, the entire Eryri region was part of the seabed, as attested to by the fragments of fossil-imprinted rocks that can be found on and near the summit. Around 485 million years ago, during a geological era known as the Ordovician Period, volcanic activity resulted in the creation of rocky islands. Some of Yr Wyddfa’s most distinctive features can be traced back to this time.
Fast forward 50 million years and a series of enormous continental crashes and considerable tectonic stress resulted in large-scale folding of the rock in the area that would become North Wales. This process was responsible for the formation of Eryri’s famous slate, which would play an important role in the region’s modern history.
The finishing touches to Eryri’s breathtaking mountainous landscape were made during the Quaternary Period – an era that stretches from around 2.58 million years ago to the modern-day. This may seem like a long time (and it most certainly is for humans) but it actually only constitutes 0.1% of all geologic time.
During this period, Eryri’s mountains were carved and shaped by massive ice flows and glaciers, which were the product of a series of ice ages. These glaciers also deposited rock and other minerals they dragged with them. In fact, some of the rocks that now form Yr Wyddfa can be traced back to distinctive deposits in places as far away as Ireland and Scotland.
Eryri’s human history begins thousands of years ago and evidence of prehistoric settlements seems to suggest that the land was being farmed by approximately 3,000 BC. The remnants of Tre’r Ceiri, an iron age village on the slopes of Yr Eifl can still be seen today. However, little is known of the societies that populated the region during this period.
Following the Roman invasion of Britain, we start to get a much clearer picture of the region’s history. The Romans referred to the people of North West Wales as the Ordovices, though whether the local population conceived of themselves as a single group is questionable. The Romans had a habit of grouping disparate peoples who had little interaction with one another under a single name. The unstoppable expansion of the Roman Empire eventually led to the region being conquered in 77 or 78 AD.
Towards the end of the 4th Century, with pressures mounting on the Roman Empire back on the continent and a growing number of incursions by the Irish Scoti along the Welsh coast, the Romans began to pull back from Wales. This left a significant power vacuum to fill. In stepped the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans, all of whom sought to occupy large tracts of land in North Wales. Many succeeded, though holding on to that territory proved difficult, particularly in the tough, rugged mountainous terrain of Eryri.
In response to these invasions, local nobles, referred to as the Princes of Gwynedd, began fortifying the region. Many of their castles still stand today, with notable examples being Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan Castles. These defended the mountain passes that were the main ways in, through and out of Eryri.
In 1274, Edward I ascended to the English throne and in 1277 the newly crowned king sent his army into Wales in an attempt to put down a series of rebellions. A tentative peace was secured but tensions continued to rise until they came to a head in 1282. Edward launched a full-scale invasion, against which the Welsh united, with Eryri the heartland of the resistance. The war came to an end when one of the Welsh leaders, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, made the fatal mistake of bringing his troops out of the Eryri mountains and down towards the English-Welsh border. They were trapped and defeated, ending the war.
Like many before him, Edward I consolidated his position by reinforcing the highlands of Eryri with forts and castles. However, this didn’t stop several popular uprisings from being launched in the 13th and 14th centuries. After the last major rebellion in 1400, the Penal Laws Against Wales were passed, preventing the Welsh from bearing arms, holding a public office or living within a fortified town.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, education was only offered in the English language. As the vast majority of people spoke Welsh, many were unable to access it. This changed somewhat when Griffith Jones, a Church of England Minister, established his famous circulating schools. These schools would stay in one place for three months at a time, teaching the local population to read and write in Welsh, before moving on to another area.
At the start of the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution reached Eryri, where the presence of vast quantities of slate, as well as gold, iron and copper, attracted the interests of miners. This industrial heritage is very much apparent today in the many mills and mineheads you’ll find within Eryri.
One Arthurian legend, in particular, is inextricably linked to Yr Wyddfa. Rhitta Gawr (sometimes Rhudda Gawr) was a warring giant that battled local armies, killed soldiers and made their beards into a cap that he wore wherever he went. In response to the giant’s rampaging, the kings of Britain united and their armies marched on his home – Eryri.
Rhitta defeated the kings and, once again, cut off their beards. This time he fashioned them into a cloak, to keep out the cold.
Later, Rhitta sent King Arthur, who had been busy slaying another giant, a message demanding that he shave off his beard and hand it over, so it could be used to patch Rhitta’s fraying cloak. King Arthur refused and the furious giant came down from the mountains with his followers, hoping to take it. He failed and King Arthur routed the giant’s forces.
The king himself followed Rhitta to the summit of Yr Wyddfa, where he dealt a deadly blow that killed the giant. He ordered a cairn be built over the giant’s body, which was known as Gwyddfa Rhudda (Rhitta’s Cairn). Over the years, the Rhudda would be dropped and forgotten and Gwyddfa slowly became Yr Wyddfa.
Arthurian legends permeate Eryri’s rugged landscapes and you’ll encounter many sites with an Arthurian history when you walk the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. If you pass Llyn Llydaw, take a moment to gaze into its clear waters and you may just spot the legendary Excalibur, as this is one of several possible resting places for the king’s sword.
Today, Yr Wyddfa is the most recognisable natural landmark in Wales, if not the entire United Kingdom. It attracts around 740,000 visitors every year and is a mecca for rock climbing, trail running, mountain biking and mountaineering. Eryri is a place of breathtaking natural beauty and awe-inspiring grandeur. And it’s also home to a considerable number of Eryri residents, many of whom live in the long shadow of Yr Wyddfa.
We would recommend that everyone visits Eryri and climbs to the summit of Yr Wyddfa at least once in their lifetime. It’s too spectacular to miss. However, significant increases in visitor numbers are problematic, particularly when many visitors aren’t practising responsible tourism. This means that one of the greatest challenges facing Yr Wyddfa, as with the rest of the planet as a whole, is human impact on the environment.
Consequently, when you visit Yr Wyddfa, we would encourage you to try to be environmentally friendly and act in as sustainable a manner as possible. That means respecting local rules and guidelines, taking care of the natural environment and following ‘leave no trace’ principles. These principles have been summarised into a handy seven-point list by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces (ideal approved camping areas)
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimise campfire impacts
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of other visitors
While the National Park Authority doesn’t have a list of established rules for visitors to Eryri, it does recommend consulting the Countryside Code before you visit. If you have specific questions about what is and isn’t permissible in the park, the Authority’s online FAQ section is a good place to start.
For some visitors, sustainable tourism may also mean travelling to and from Eryri via public transport and buying from locally-owned shops and services while you’re there. Most importantly, it means respecting Yr Wyddfa and Eryri. Because, in doing so, you’re also respecting our shared natural and cultural heritage. At a time when natural environments across the planet are threatened by climate change and damaging human activity, this couldn’t be more important. Eryri is one of the most beautiful areas in the United Kingdom and Yr Wyddfa is arguably this island’s most treasured natural landmark. As visitors, it’s our job to preserve that beauty for future generations.
If you’re interested in better understanding the challenges faced by those trying to protect Eryri and Yr Wyddfa, the Park Authority publishes a regular State of the Park Report. This details what work is being done to safeguard the region’s natural heritage.
The Snowdonia Society, a member-based conservation charity that works together with the Snowdonia National Park Authority to protect and maintain the natural environment, is also an excellent source of information. Its Helping Hands initiative depends on volunteers and it also engages with a range of other campaigns – details of which you can find here.
Of course, we’re always happy to chat about our favourite place in the world, so feel free to get in touch with the team here, as well!