When evidence of motivation does not exist, looking for the reason of things becomes an exercise in educated empathy. Standing within a landscape of immense antiquity, as one does at Ysceifiog, our lack of understanding as to why our ancestors chose to engineer the environment as they did is not a little disconcerting. It is possible that the peoples of the Neolithic made their homes at Ysceifiog and marked their presence here with a curious earthen circle and barrow. The peoples of the Bronze Age followed, perhaps drawn to the area because of the visible marks of a previous age and buried their dead in cairns and tumuli – Lord knows there are enough of them.
Ysceifiog’s origins are obviously distant but unknown. There is no evidence of a pre-Norman settlement here, at least something we would recognise as becoming Ysceifiog. There is no curvilinear churchyard, no llan that we can identify, though the presence of Whitford Dyke, once thought to be a part of Offa’s Dyke would suggest that this was border country between the native Welsh and the Mercian Saxons.
The village enters recorded history with the Domesday Book of 1086, in which it is named as, ‘Schiviau’. It can be found in various taxation records, including the Norwich Taxation of 1254 where it is known as ‘Esceyvauc’. By the time of the Tudors the name of the village was taking on something closer to its current condition, known as, ‘Yskeifioc’ in the 1550s. Rendered into English, the name translates as, ‘sloping place’, which is entirely fair.
Little else is known about the village. St Mary’s Church was rebuilt in 1836-7 and it would seem not before time, since Samuel Lewis, writing in 1834 describes a church in ‘such a state of dilapidation that divine service has been discontinued’. However, in describing the earlier church, he mentions some Norman work, including a richly ornamented doorway, in good repair, which however was done away with in the rebuild. There are a few remaining bits of the medieval past, some stained glass, a perpendicular font bowl and a 14th century effigy of a priest. Moses Griffith, possibly better known as the fellow who illustrated much of Thomas Pennant’s work made a sketch of the church in around 1782. The churchyard has the remains of a cross, a ‘greatly dilapidated’ affair, according to Elias Owen. But, as Owen is apt to do, he gives us more than we thought to get, and thus the cross warrants a brief entry unto itself.
In detailing the cross, Owen also tell us a little of Ysceifiog, and describes a tradition that would seem to be unique to the village. Apparently, it was the custom of the rich to, ‘distribute little rolls of bread to the poor’, when one of their family members had died. As Owen describes it, the needy, ‘flocked in great numbers to the house of the deceased’, which must have been a little disturbing, and they would then be given the bread before the corpse was brought out of the house. This was probably a result of a distant act that subsequently became the norm. Another custom, but one shared by other Welsh parishes, was that of a funeral party reciting the Lord’s Prayer at every crossway and again at the lich gate.
Ysceifiog is also notable for being the birth place of the scholar John Jones who was probably better known as a collector of manuscripts. More accurately, he was born at Gellilyfdy in nearby Babell.
Quiet and unassuming you may think, but still waters run deep in Ysceifiog.