The Tale of Clustiau March (March’s Ears)

The modern house of Castellmarch, sited just over a kilometer from the village of Abersoch on the Llŷn Peninsula dates to 1628. However, it is said to stand on the site of an older Llys — one associated with a very peculiar legend that relates to a legend about one of the heroes of the Old North, March ap Meirchion. This legend is preserved in the Peniarth 134 MSS and is presented as a family tale appended to the genealogy of Iarddur ap Egri ap Morien ap Mynac ap March ap Meirchion. The legend is still extant in Llŷn and though the heart of the tale is the same as that presented in the Peniarth MSS it does contain a few embellishments which are presented here:

March mab Meirchion was the lord of a portion of Llŷn and his llys was at Castellmarch, near the sea, as befitted one of the chief sea-lords of the Island of Britain. He was wealthy from trade and his lands were rich, boasting herds of swine and oxen. The swine being so famous and prolific that even Emperor Arthur sent for a brace for his own use. His household was large and his lands and possessions catered for them all. Yet, despite his wealth and position March was not a happy man for he harboured a secret shame and feared that one day this secret would be revealed. March had the ears of a horse!

No one knew of his secret save his barber and it came that his old barber retired and a new one had to be sought. The man appointed to this role was Piban. On his first day March took him aside and said: ‘Upon your honour you must swear me an oath that you will tell no living being of my misfortune. If you break that oath, either by intention or by accident I will have your death.’ Piban affirmed that he would keep March’s secret to his grave. But as the years passed the weight of his duty pressed on Piban and he became more and more ill. The more he brooded on March’s secret and the weight of his oath the more ill he became until he stopped eating and became pale and weak. So bad was his plight that his wife summoned to master of physick to attend to him.

After a thorough examination and the application of leeches the physician proclaimed: ‘There is nothing amiss with your body, my dear barber. It is with your spirit that the trouble lies, is this not so?’ Piban merely nodded an affirmative, so afraid was he that his secret might slip-out unbidden. ‘Then this is my advice to you…’ said the physician ‘tell your wife the secret you bear, else it will drive you to your grave.’ Piban could only smile wanly as the physician clapped him on the shoulder and left his chamber.

But what was Piban to do? He could no more tell his wife of the secret he bore than he could shout it out from atop the heights of Garn Fadryn. Head bowed, Piban left his house and began walking towards the coast path. The murmuring of the waves seemed like a chorus of whispering, cajoling, voices chasing his footsteps. They were chasing him, and fearing for his life and his sanity Piban began to run. He ran away from the sea and those whispering voices right into the marshy heart of the peninsula until exhausted he came to a stop by the dried rim of a bog. Bowed and attempting to catch his breath he looked at the bare earth and the physick’s words came back to him. He had to tell someone his secret or it would inevitably kill him. Surely it would not matter if he whispered the secret to the bear earth out here where there was no living thing to hear him. Sinking to his knees, he decided to tell the earth itself his secret. But try as he might, fear overcame him and his lips moved but no words emerged. Finally however he managed to stammer out the words Mae clustiau ceffyl gan Farch (March has horses’ ears). Almost instantly he felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders and he felt immeasurably happier. Returning home he regained his appetite and his colour and his wife believed that the physician had cured him. The truth, of course, was that he had unburdened himself of his secret by whispering it to the earth.

That winter water returned to the marshland, slaking the dried earth and the following spring reeds began to grow green and strong. That year, for the festival of Calan Mai March was preparing a great feast and had called all the nobles of Britain to assemble at Castellmarch. To provide entertainment for the feast he had requested the best pipers in the realm, the pipers of Maelgwn Gwynedd, himself. These made their way to Castellmarch and on their way they saw a fair stand of reeds and needing to renew their stock of pipes they decided to cut some of these reeds for their use. As they came to the Llys of March these reeds were whittled and prepared for playing.

That night, as the feast drew to a close the pipers were called for and in honour of March and his realm they decided to use the new pipes they had fashioned. They lifted the pipes to their lips and began to blow the first notes, but all that emerged from the pipes were the words klustiau march i march amheirchion (March Amheirchion has horses’ ears). Enraged by what he had heard March leapt to his feet and drawing his sword he swore to slay the pipers for the outrage they had caused. But the other nobles intervened to stay March’s hand. The pipers all pleaded that their pipes had been enchanted. A little calmer, March snatched at one of the pipes and put it to his own lips. As soon as he began to blow the refrain klustiau march i march amheirchion emerged from the pipe.

A peal of laughter issued from the nobles as they saw March’s plight. Despite this and the red rage on March’s face Piban slowly and timorously walked forwards to face his master. With quavering voice he told March and the entire llys what he had done. Sadly March shook his head, but instead of separating Piban’s head from his shoulders he re-sheathed his sword in its scabbard. Then, shoulders bowed, he turned to face the courtiers and nobles and with broken voice he addressed them: ‘My shameful secret is now told,’ said March, ‘Nothing more can be done about it. I shall pardon the barber and the pipers, all.’ As he said this, instead of the expected jeers and howls of laughter March heard an uproarious clapping and voices proclaiming him as: March y trugareddog (March the merciful). And for his good will and mercy was March known as the best of the men of the Island of Britain.

This folk-tale is also echoed in the Breton tale of Guivarc’h which is a story of a very similar type. Such tales occur all over Europe and are variants of the tale of Midas though the Brythonic variant given here may be based more on a classical archetype such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tale is also an example of the re-localization of tales regarding the heroes of northern Britain (the Gwŷr y Gogledd) to the land of the Cymry. It should also be noted that the piper’s name, Piban literally means ‘little pipe’ and was probably tacked onto the story at a later date.