Portrait of George Borrow

Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings

George Borrow’s book Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings was published in 1928, forty-seven years after Borrow’s death.  Although a substantial work at over 350 pages, with a scholarly introduction by the discoverer of the book, Herbert G. Wright (4 July 1888 to 11 August 1962) and also published by John Murray (Borrow’s original publisher) it hasn’t received much Borrovian attention to date.  It’s usually referred to as just Celtic Bards.

The Story of the Book

In Wild Wales, chapter one, Borrow claimed that he had learnt some Welsh “partly from books [1] and partly from a Welsh groom” [2] whilst articled to William Simpson, solicitor of Norwich (30 March 1819–30 March 1824), becoming as he claimed in Lavengro “a perfect master in the Welsh tongue.”  Borrow’s interest in all things Welsh become a keynote of his youth, when he would read and translate the poems of Ab Gwilym (and presumably other Welsh texts), with the Norwich libraries providing materials for his study.

In Lavengro a good deal of this Welsh interest comes out, not just with Ab Gwilym, but Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg by Ellis Wyn, and the Welsh preacher Peter Williams, etc.

After the “Lavengro period” (say upto 1825), Borrow was occupied in many other activities and he seems to have had to set Welsh matters aside for many years, although he later claimed to have translated Ellis Wynne’s The Sleeping Bard around 1830.

Yet, as he said in Lavengro, he longed to “go into Wales” but he didn’t manage it until July 1854 when he spent five months in Wales, walking north to south and recording three notebooks of material, clearly intending to publish something later.  By his 1854 tour Borrow had become very well read in Welsh bards and Welsh history and had produced numerous translations (many of which he mentions in Wild Wales).

On 18 May 1857 Romany Rye was published, ending a fifteen year period in which Borrow had struggled to deliver what became Lavengro and Romany Rye.  At the end of Romany Rye Borrow listed a number of works that he had “ready for the Press”, and this list started with Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings (two volumes).  Apart from the title, no other details were given, and given that Wild Wales was not listed, and that Borrow had a great accumulation of Welsh material, what Borrow was planning is a bit of a mystery.

Borrow, now free of literary commitments, set off on a second tour of Wales (23 August to 5 October 1857) and his attention was now clearly on developing and publishing his many Welsh related manuscripts, but it wasn’t until 27 June 1860 that he (self) published The Sleeping Bard, John Murray declining to do so but allowing his name to appear on the book.

Possibly in order to draw attention to his publication of The Sleeping Bard, in January 1861 Borrow published a substantial essay, The Welsh and their Literature, in the Quarterly Review.  Supposedly an anonymous review of (his translation of) The Sleeping Bard, it contained a quotation from the unpublished Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings:

“After wandering for many miles towards the south, over a bleak moory country, you come to a place called Ffair Rhos ...”

In November 1861 the manuscript of Wild Wales was sent to John Murray, and after some reluctance to publish, Wild Wales was published in “late” 1862.  The above quotation appears near the start of Chapter 91 of Wild Wales, but Wild Wales is a very different book from what we’d expect from Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings: Borrow appeared to be reusing a passage from Celtic Bards in Wild Wales (or visa-versa).

Borrow didn’t manage to publish any other Welsh related materials during his life and after his death in 1881 his vast collection of manuscripts was broken up and purchased by various collectors.  Ernest Rhys pulled together some of Borrow’s Welsh poetical translations together and published them as Welsh Poems in 1915, but there was no sign of the elusive Celtic Bards.

Much of Borrow’s remaining unpublished material was eventually published by Clement Shorter in the Norwich Edition of the works of George Borrow (16 volumes), 1923–4.  At the time of publication of the Norwich Edition Shorter (and more particularly his assistant, Herbert Wright, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Bangor) had been unable to identify Celtic Bards, but they had identified two substantial (and untitled) Welsh pieces by Borrow:

1)  A 26 page essay on Griffith ap Nicholas.

2)  A 332 page essay covering numerous Welsh Bards and Kings.  Shorter titled this Welsh Bards.

Both of the above, together with some other minor Welsh pieces, were published in Volume 14 of the Norwich Edition, as a sort of appendix to Wild Wales.

After the publication of the Norwich Edition Herbert Wright, clearly puzzling over the still unidentified Celtic Bards made a number of breakthroughs, which he describes in his introduction to Celtic Bards.  The first was that the quote from Celtic Bards given by Borrow in 1861 in The Welsh and their Literature occurs on page 127 of Welsh Bards in the Norwich edition.  I.e. what Shorter had published as Welsh Bards was part of the unidentified Celtic Bards.  However, Welsh Bards, was missing the start, and in the Norwich Edition begins:

“We now proceed to give some account of the poetic literature of the Welsh. ...”

That led to Wright’s second breakthrough: the above phrase occurs more or less identically in The Welsh and their Literature:

“We now proceed to give some account of the literature of the Cymry. ...”

Wright realised that Borrow must have extracted The Welsh and their Literature from his manuscript of Celtic Bards, in order to use it for his 1861 review of his Sleeping Bard.  Although Wright doesn’t say it, there are numerous similarities between the text of Welsh Bards and The Welsh and their Literature after these two phrases, strongly implying that Borrow used the existing Celtic Bards manuscript as the basis of the rest of The Welsh and their Literature.

By placing The Welsh and their Literature first (upto the “We now proceed”), writing a short bridging passage, and then printing Welsh Bards (slotting the Griffith ap Nicholas piece in in chronological order) Wright had managed to identify the missing Celtic Bards, and duly published it in 1928, which a detailed introduction explaining the above (with many more details).

As with all posthumously published works, it’s possible that had George Borrow published Celtic Bards himself it wouldn’t be exactly the book that Wright published: but it would be substantially the same.  Wright was very aware of this and made a point of publishing exactly what Borrow had written in the manuscript, even down to spelling and grammatical errors, only adding an occasional word (in square brackets) to make the meaning clear.


The Times published a review of Celtic Bards on 19 October 1928.  Marvelling that a complete new book by Borrow had just been published, the reviewer listed many things they hoped it would contain (the Petelengroes? Isopel? Big Ben?) and many things they hoped it would not (the Man in Black, philology), concluding that if it alluded to Ab Gwilym “we should imitate Taggart ... who took snuff and said nothing.”  Of course Celtic Bards is exactly of the latter description.  The reviewer then proceeds to say that the Borrow of Celtic Bards “is not the one we should like best to listen to, but still ... is the undeniably genuine article who can inflict on us against our will a good deal of tiresome information in a pedantic manner and then suddenly illumine it all with one flashing phrase of genius.”

The review drew a letter (published 23 October 1928) by Rev. J. Morgan Gibbon following up on the mention of Goronwy Owen in the review by relating a visit he had made to Goronwy’s birthplace.  Gibbon says that whilst Borrow exaggerated Ab Gwilym’s significance, he was correct in what he said of Goronwy.

The Aberdeen Journal didn’t notice the book until 1 November 1928 and under the heading of “A George Borrow Relic” printed:

Readers of “Wild Wales” are aware of George Borrow’s intense interest in Celtic history and literature, and this book, which was advertised in Borrow’s lifetime but never published, contains his connected ideas on these subjects.  The manuscript had become scattered, but Mr. Wright has pieced it together and given us a volume which is no doubt practically what Borrow would have made it.  Borrow was not meticulously correct in his facts, but he had the “seeing eye” and a prolific veins of sympathy for the Welsh mind.  He was, too, in his way a poet, and the result is that in these pages we get not only many vigorous sketches of Celtic personages, but much out-of-the-way knowledge, a great deal of history both literary and national, and some excellent verse translations.  Altogether it is a book in the true erudite and manly style of its versatile author, and Borrovians will be delighted to add it to their shelves.

When Professor Herbert Wright died (11 August 1962), The Times obituary listed his many literary and scholarly achievements, but half of the obituary was entitled Edward Thomas and Borrow: showing what a major piece of scholarship the identification of Celtic Bards was still held to have been.


[1]  See Ann Ridler’s article on George Borrow’s interest in Anglesey poet, George Borrow Bulletin, series 2, page 7, where William Owen’s 1803 Welsh Grammar is cited as the main book Borrow would have used.

[2]  But see George Borrow Bulletin, series 2, page 7, where Ann Ridler points out: “he wrote at the foot of one of his early Welsh translations, that he had ‘never in all his life heard a word of Welsh from man or woman.’”