Not all witches were evil of course, and many used white magic to aid their communities wherever they could. Bella Fawr (Big Bella) was one such witch and her fame was widespread.
Griffiths and the Old Woman of Llanfrothen
In the county of Gwynedd there is a village called Llanfrothen. The village was plagued with a particularly unpleasant witch, whose mischievous behaviour was a cause of much concern to the people of the area. She would beg and mither, and curse those that refused her. One day, the wife of John Griffiths managed to annoy the witch, by refusing her milk. The farmer’s wife had endured a bad day, and had grown tired of the witch’s demands day in and day out. Thus she refused the witch, and sent her on her way with a sharp word. The witch glowered at the woman as she left, muttering under her breath.
That afternoon, the wife was churning milk for butter, but found to her dismay that no butter would come. However hard she tried, however hard she worked, no butter would come. It did not take her long to realise the cause – the witch had cursed her, for certain.
On her husband’s return, the woman explained the problem. Griffiths was not angry and in truth he understood his wife’s annoyance with the old witch’s constant demands.
‘Not to worry, wife,’ said Griffiths, ‘I shall visit the cunning man who lives nearby, and he shall know what to do.’
With that, Griffiths took saddled his horse and rode the short distance to the cunning man’s house to seek advice. On opening the door to Griffiths’ urgent knocking, the old man was already laughing.
‘You’ve upset the old woman, haven’t you?’ he laughed. ‘Or at least your wife has. You should both know better…a little milk is a small price to pay, is it not?’
Griffiths bridled at the jibe, ‘She’s not at your door, always looking for something for nothing, is she.’ he snapped.
‘Aye, well I have little she would want.’ smiled the cunning man.
‘Our butter won’t churn.’ muttered Griffiths, ‘Will you help us or not?’
‘Of course’ replied the old man, holding out his hand palm up.
Muttering, Griffiths rummaged in a pocket in his waistcoat, and brought out a coin, which he placed on the old man’s palm. ‘So, what is to be done?’
The old man looked the coin over a little, before grasping it tightly in his fist. ‘The curse is a strong one,’ he declared, ‘but if you take a white hot crowbar, and plunge it in to the milk before churning, you’ll find yourself with butter before long.’
Griffiths thanked the old man and returned to his farm. Explaining the remedy to his wife, they did as they were bid, and after removing the glowing crowbar from the fire, the milk churned to butter without a problem.
The white hot crowbar worked a treat for several weeks, but soon thereafter the wife noticed that the milk would take longer to turn to butter than the day before. Not long after, despite their best efforts, the Griffiths’ found that once again, no butter would come.
Griffiths returned to the cunning man, but shrugged his shoulders at the farmer’s concerns. ‘The curse was a powerful one, and I have no other help to give,’ he said, ‘But I know of someone who can help you. You must travel to Denbigh Town, and seek out Bella Fawr, the white witch. She will help you. Her payment is a black cockerel.’
This Griffiths did, though it took much of the day to find her in a thatched cottage on the outskirts of the town. Bella Fawr was well named. A huge woman, but with a kindly face, she was welcoming and polite, thanking Griffiths for the ‘gift’ of the cockerel.
‘What are we to do, mistress Bella?’ asked Griffiths, a little overawed by the witch.
‘A strong curse, this one,’ said Bella, ‘and one out of proportion for the refusal of a little milk…’
‘She comes every day, and every day but this day we give her the milk she demands.’ sighed Griffiths.
‘I’m not criticising you, farmer, but charity benefits not only the taker,’ was Bella’s reply.
With this, Bella described Griffiths’ home and fields exactly. Amazed, the farmer nodded his head and wringed his cap in his hands, a little fearful of the witch. ‘You must bring all your cows down to Gors Goch Field - this must be done at night - and together with a friend, you must hide by the holly tree in the corner of the field and wait silently. You will see then, the person who so injures you.’
Griffiths thanked Bella for her help, and began the long journey back to Llanfrothen. That night, he did as he was instructed, and with his brother he herded all his cows down to Gors Goch field, and hid beneath the holly tree as instructed. Before long, he saw a hunched and groaning figure making its way into the field, and immediately the cattle began to low in unhappiness. By the light of the moon, Griffiths saw it to be the old woman who had been snubbed by his wife some weeks previous. She was in obvious pain, gasping and moaning and Griffiths knew it to be a counter curse, laid on the witch by Bella Fawr. The witch began to utter strange words, quite unlike any Griffiths or his brother had heard before. With that, she disappeared, though the brothers did not see her leave. The cattle settled immediately, and on the morrow the wife found the milk churned easily to butter.
Bella and the farmyard curse
One morning, answering a knock at her door, Bella Fawr found a small girl waiting for her, clutching a black cockerel. Bella knew that her skills were required, since the cockerel was the price for her magical aid.
‘What is the concern, girl and how may I help?’ asked Bella gently.
The girl began to cry then, ‘It’s our animals, Miss Bella…’ With that the child began to tell her tale, of how one evening a few days gone, all the animals of the farm had taken ill. They had begun to twitch and shiver, before falling to the ground, unable to regain their feet. There they had stayed, in obvious pain, making such plaintive sounds that the family was being driven quite mad by it all. ‘If the animals die, our farm with fail and we shall be homeless. Are we cursed?’
‘I fear you are, though I know no reason for it.’ Bella shook her head, saddened by the use of such magic for such petty but damaging deeds.
Bella walked over to the large bench that dominated her kitchen, upon which stood various earthern pots full of herbs and spices of various colours. Bella gathered together a mixture of these herbs, mixing them in a large pot before pouring the mixture into a drawstring bag. This she gave to the little girl. ‘Tonight, take a hair from the back of each and every animal which suffers the curse. Together with these herbs, through them on the fire and the curse will come to an end.’
The girl returned to the Bodfari farm and her family did as instructed. The herbs and the hairs burned brightly that night, and come the morning, the animals were quite healed, gaining their feet quite sprightly…apart from one. In the commotion and the excitement, the family had forgotten the old family dog, which had slunk away to suffer in silence. Later that day, they found the poor beast dead beneath the stairs.
E. Owen, Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales, Woodhall, Minshull & Co., Oswestry & Wrexham (1896)