Exploring Regional and Bilingual Welsh Identity in the Dyfi Biosphere

Text on white background of bookcases
Anne Marie Carty

The Dyfi Biosphere area in mid Wales is a Welsh-speaking area that faces a number of long-term changes and loss of language and culture through the effects of in and out-migration, and more recently through the potential impacts of Brexit and conservation policies such as “rewilding” on upland sheep farming. This is a critical time for these Welsh-speaking communities, and they feel deeply under-represented. As a long-standing researcher and community engagement practitioner in the area I was invited by the Farmer’s Union Wales (FUW) and a group of local farmers to undertake a Welsh-language community engagement project to reflect on and discuss these issues in order to give voice to their concerns in future dialogue between them and the largely English-speaking conservation bodies and politicians.

The aims of the project were fourfold:

  1. To explore questions of language and cultural diversity and ideas around a bilingual identity (multilingual identity).
  2. To initiate and facilitate discussions that, given the nature of incomer-local relations, would inevitably address issues between the majority English language in Wales; the shifting position of Welsh as a minority language and threats to Welsh-language culture.
  3. Address the view of many Welsh-speakers of Wales as one large border region in relation to England given its devolved political status and prevalence of English language media.
  4. Investigate the shift away from Welsh as traditionally an agricultural language and tensions between historic and modern forms of identity.

The methodology and practical approach of this project built on my professional practice which uses film screenings and facilitated post-screening discussions for reflection and discussion. This project proposed four film screenings and filmed discussions employing narrative therapy techniques to create and maintain safe spaces for reflection, discussion and ongoing dialogue between Welsh-speaking farmers and mostly English-speaking conservation groups and local horticultural growers.

Man with sheep
Robert Edwards, Brynsion (2019). Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Carty.

I had planned to directly engage around seventy-five male and female farmers through the film screening and discussion process and reach several hundred more via the Farmer’s Union’s social media and publicity. However, there were a number of unavoidable delays, including difficulty getting permissions to use archive film clips, the timescale for the completion of the Mixed farming project’s oral history interview process, which meant the project could not begin before January 2020, when lambing begins in the upland farms. During this time, farmers are busy day and night with lambing and are not available for such light-hearted endeavours as community engagement. We decided to delay until the end of March, when the completing the project as proposed became untenable due to the nation-wide lock-down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This post will, therefore, focus on the work undertaken before the end of 2019. The original project has, with the help of a number of partners, been extended and will take place when the lock-down restrictions are sufficiently relaxed to allow gatherings of people. In the event that this does not happen in 2020, we will adapt the project so it can be undertaken online.

In addition to support from the above-mentioned partners and Creative Multilingualism’s funding call for doctoral students, which prompted my research, further assistance was provided by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales, who kindly compiled an archive film of historical farming and social practices, and Ecodyfi’s Mixed Farming project, which has granted permission to use of a number of Welsh-language oral history interviews with farmers as voice-over for the archive film. This film will be used as soon as is practicable after the Covid-19 lockdown ends.

Researching and selecting the archive material for the film screenings was a fascinating process. The material I chose included film footage of farming practices and food distribution in Brittany, France, during  the 1960s, from a programme produced for Welsh-language viewers. The programme describes the social and economic effects of the out-migration from rural Brittany by younger Breton-speakers, the death of older Breton-speakers, and the influx of first-language French speakers, who were drawn to the area by the beauty of its landscape and coasts. These changes resulted in the dilution of Breton as a majority language, which was perceived as a threat to regional culture. The similarities between Brittany and rural Wales presented an opportunity to trigger reflection and discussion about topics pertaining to this other culture amongst Welsh-speaking farmers who might also recognise the dynamics. When combined with a carefully edited voiceover of the experiences of local Welsh-speaking farmers promoting the recognition of shared experience, the archive film footage of historical farming practices takes on an additional significance, reaffirming aspects of a shared history and identity and raising further questions about contemporary issues and (undoubtedly complex) notions of identity as first-language Welsh-speakers.

man and woman before a hut
Mair a Brynle Rees wrth y 'Foty yng nghefn mynydd Glanllynmawr Haf (2019). Photo courtesy of Anne Marie Carty.

While waiting to obtain copyright permissions to use the selected archive material and for  the oral history interviews to be completed, I undertook some preliminary research with Welsh-speakers from around the Dyfi Biosphere area. I met with a group of six female farmers and filmed a lively two-hour discussion over tea and cake. I observationally filmed two local farmers in conversation while going about their daily rounds, as they reflected on general issues and, in particular, the effects Brexit was likely to have on upland sheep farmers locally. I also filmed interviews with a woman living locally, who, while not a farmer, is deeply committed to sustainable food production and works in local food distribution. During the course of these interviews, she made interesting about “Welsh” identity, which I will address in greater detail.

Many of these discussions focussed on historic farming methods. The amount of labour required and the gendered nature of that labour, where the women were kept busy feeding the workers, as well as the necessity of children taking a share of the farm work was contrasted with the sociability of the yearly cycle, where neighbouring farmers would go from farm to farm to help with lambing and shearing sheep, cutting, turning and baling hay for winter fodder – tasks that kept farmers involved in a busy social calendar. Non-farming villagers might also help on the farms, or would glean the fields after grain crops had been harvested, maintaining social links between farms and villages. The medium of the Welsh language connected these social spaces and, as a result, these spaces appeal to the imaginations of Welsh-speaking farming communities today, who – despite the continuing importance of “neighbourliness” within Welsh-speaking communities – feel that the sphere in which they operate in their first language has significantly diminished over the last few decades. Women’s lives in particular changed radically with the wide-spread adoption of farm machinery, which reduced the need for manual labour and freed-up women to work outside the home. In turn, women gained some financial and social independence, although women continued to feel the pressure of “having to do everything”, by also looking after the home and the children. Many of these jobs were in the wider agricultural sector and in education, where a command of the Welsh language is essential. Meanwhile, mechanisation resulted in an increasing isolation of men’s farming lives, which, in turn, has led to widely-recognised depression and mental ill-health.

The undoubtedly negative impact of Brexit on upland sheep farming and increasing environmental concerns have led to recent calls to return some of the land to human food production, for crops and horticultural growing. However, these calls have largely been met with extreme doubt by farmers who feel that the financial returns would be too low and the level of manual labour required too high. In this context, it is interesting that Mach Maethlon – Edible Mach, a English-speaking local food-growing initiative, instigated small-scale experimental grain production in 2019. The production necessarily involved advice and use of vintage machinery belonging to local farmers and represented a real breakthrough in cross-community / language relations. This relationship continues to develop during the Covid-19 lockdown; the topic of food production and short-supply chains has become of urgent interest and  farmers are now offering land for horticultural food-production. I’ve refocussed my research to address the fascinating acceleration of these ideas and intend to adapt the extended community-dialogue process to look for solutions to the challenges facing Welsh upland rural communities within an atmosphere of increased mutual understanding and interest.

The group of six women farmers I interviewed all additionally work outside the farm or run diversified farm businesses, such as bed and breakfasts, to supplement their families’ incomes. They discussed how the digitisation of  the local Welsh language newspapers (Papurau Bro), set up in the 1970s to augment communication between a declining Welsh-speaking population, has resulted in a loss of important social contact , as those compiling and editing each issue no longer needed to gather as a group. They are also concerned that increased car use as leading to reduced opportunities for social contact, as people no longer meet when walking in the villages––a concern identified across all groups interviewed. Decline in rural services, such as village shops, local post offices, banks and pubs, further the reduced opportunity for participating in administrative activities and of Welsh-language social contact. Such decreases in local opportunities to socialise formally and informally were compounded by the influx of English-speaking incomers and the perceived difficulties (on both sides) of “getting to know each other”. Despite these concerns, the women I interviewed were very supportive of English-speaking incomers learning Welsh. And yet, they wondered how exactly to support them, given the lack of natural social interactions between the two groups?    

There are many formal, continuing initiatives to help incomers learn Welsh, but uptake (and success) is varied. There are unique challenges to learning a language from within an environment in which everyone speaks at least some of the learner’s first-language which make it hard to persevere and to improve in the new language. My experience as a long-standing resident of the area is that male Welsh-speaking farmers are less ready to engage in conversation with someone learning Welsh. While they sometimes express guilt about this, they prefer communicating simply and directly. Female Welsh-speakers (including farmers), however, seem more ready to “make the effort” to converse with Welsh learners, to help them practice. The farmers I interviewed described several local events which were bilingual out of necessity, given the language mix of the attendees, and which they assessed as very successful. They determined that three things are essential to sharing language learning: “Paned [Welsh for a cup of tea], and eating, and chat. Yes, the three things; paned, eating and chat.”   

It would be far beyond the scope of this small-scale research project to offer a cogent summary of the experiences of identity in the Bro Ddyfi area. However, the complex intra-language group dynamics of this area are particularly evident in the case of one of the women I interviewed, who was from a non-farming background. She expressed feeling she had been excluded from claiming a “true Welsh  identity” because her command of the language was not confidently fluent. She had grown up in north Wales, raised by non-Welsh  speaking parents, and had learnt a very different dialect to that of the Dyfi Valley area. She was based south of the area which employs a more South-Walian form of Welsh, and felt that people neither took her northern dialect and colloquial use of the language seriously, nor considered her “truly” Welsh. This woman’s experience can be understood in the terms the anthropologist Mary Douglas devised in her work on sectarian communities, with their notions of “centre” and “periphery”, “purity” and “sacrifice”. Future research in this area would build on a theoretical framework developed from this work.

While this woman’s experience was one of exclusion, it stands in stark contrast with the enormous popularity of a young English-speaking incomer to the area, who exchanged life as an academic in England for that of a Welsh shepherd. He has been working on local farms and making concerted efforts to embed himself in the culture and to learn the language. His decision to involve himself primarily with Welsh-speakers is not that usual – rather than arriving into the local Welsh-speaking community via marriage, the majority of English-speaking incomers either come to join the thriving “Green” community or retire to the area - although a few English -speaking incomers I know locally did make a similar choice upon arriving in Wales. They have learnt the language much more quickly and fluently than other learners and, in some cases, have consciously adopted a “Welsh” identity. They have also been particularly proactive in maintaining the use of Welsh in their day-to-day activities, even in predominantly English-speaking environments. This last point is particularly important, as my previous research and informal observation suggests that native Welsh-speakers will do almost anything not to cause social embarrassment or discomfort in individuals, and therefore tend not to insist on speaking Welsh in an environment where there are non-Welsh speakers.

Undertaking this research has enabled the opportunity to make initial observations about the complex dynamics of bilingualism and identity in Dyfi Biosphere area. The unforeseeable delays to the project, however, mean that more work remains to be done. Once the lockdown restrictions have been eased, I intend to complete the planned community engagement process with farmers as part of an extended community dialogue process, working with Dyfi Biosphere Partnership and Ceredigion County Council. This process will use the film screening and discussion methodology to bring the views and experiences of farmers to other (mostly English-speaking) stakeholders in the agricultural sector as well as to (again, mostly English -speaking) conservation groups. Their reflections will in turn be brought back to farmers for viewing and facilitated discussion, culminating in a process where the different parties can come together for a constructive, (hopefully) face-to-face for discussion about possible solutions to future land-use changes and farming practices, armed with a better understanding of each other’s hopes, fears and points of view.

Anne Marie Carty CML presentation 2020 from Anne Marie Carty on Vimeo.

Anne Marie Carty is a third year PhD student at the University of Westminster. Her practice-based PhD uses community engagement as a key contribution to the production of documentary films in the Dyfi Biosphere area in mid Wales.