The Harlech ‘mephitic’ incident of 1694

It was neither an UFO nor the will o’ the wisp – or some other unexplained phenomena that defines the usual rational explantion. Yet whatever happened at Harlech in 1694 must have been a totally unnerving display of nature’s powers as it made its regular forays upon the people in this part of Merionethshire.

One of the earliest references to this bizarre phenomenon appears to be this extract from a letter penned in August 1694 by the noted Welshman Edward Llwyd, published during 1695 in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volume 18, page 225:

The important part of Llwyd’s text read as follows; “it is observed to come from a place called Morva Bychan in Caernarvonshire, about Eight or Nine Miles off [over part of the Sea.] That Cattle of all sorts, as Sheep, Goats, Hogs, Cows, and Horses, still dye apace; and that for certain, any great Noise, as Winding of Horns, Drums, &c. does repel it from any House, or Barn, or Stacks of Hay…”

Noted writers (and visitors to the principality) such as Daniel Defoe, William Bingley, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, broached upon the matter of this strange phenomenon, and their information was replicated with regularity in many of the nineteenth century’s journals and magazines. As recently as 2005 it was discussed at length in Barmouth’s Advertiser.

Daniel Defoe, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (all Wikipedia images)

Although Llwyd reports the year as being 1694, there are other references that place it during 1692, with one saying it was 1624 (and this quite likely a mistake.) It began at christmas time in 1693 when the gaseous vapours first made their way across the sea from Morfa Bychan, sited some eight to ten miles away between Porthmadog and Criccieth.

“It was a livid vapour, or fiery exhalation, which seemed to arise from the sea on the borders of Caernarvonshire. It made its first appearance on the side of a bay, a little after sun set, and from thence spread itself in the most gradual manner, until it had set all the houses in the neighbourhood on fire.” (Harlech Merionethshire Universal British Directory 1791)

Driving or walking upon the splendid stretch of sand at Morfa Bychan today, to most its popularly known as Black Rock sands (pictured below.) Its difficult to imagine how a peaceful part of the Welsh coastline could have been responsible for such an almighty phenomenon and the disastrous results it effected upon the peoples of Harlech.

The beach at Morfa Bychan (Black Rock Sands) looking east (image from Wikipedia)

Having crossed the bay from Morfa Bychan, this strange vapour then caused bales of hay and corn to set ablaze, and barns were burnt to the ground. Horses, sheep and cattle were badly afflicted by it, most ending up dead. Grass became poisioned. Vegetable plots were ruined. It appears that a number of houses were not immune for these self-ingited too. Yet people were not in the least bit affected by this mephitic vapour.

(Mephitic – “a foul-smelling or noxious exhalation from the earth; a stench from any source,” from the Latin mephīticus pestilential.)

One of the really strange aspects of this phenomenon, where ever one reads it, is that people found that the most effective methods of dispelling the vapour was to use trumpets, horns, fire guns (or any other ‘great noise’ as Llwyd puts it.) It is something quite unheard of (to pardon the pun) and it does make one consider whether the phenomenon was real or just a tale of sorts concocted by the locals. Certainly it may well have been that the effects of using a trumpet, horn or gun were somewhat exaggerated – the winds may have done the work of blowing the gaseous vapour away. This would make some sense – especially with the usual westerlies which would have in the first instance blown the gas across the bay, and thence drafted it inland away from the populated areas around Harlech.

The beach at Harlech, looking towards Morfa Bychan. How did such a peaceful location become the cause of a daily conflagration during 1694?
Image from Geograph © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A strange manner was the ability to appear at the same periods of day or night each time, usually at night either on a Saturday or a Sunday. At all times the gaseous vapour could be seen and it had the apperance of a weak blue-ish flame. Some accounts insist it occured daily, both in the day and at night. Llwyd makes it clear in his letter that its appearances increased as 1694 progressed. However ALL accounts had one thing upon which they agreed – the fires and animal deaths only occured during the night, NEVER during the day. Totally bizarre!

The phenomenon lasted around eight months, hence at the time Llwyd wrote his letter, it would have still been present. It seems that the phenomenon mitigated its effects towards the mid-summer of 1694. ‘Summer’ is a point to consider here, for there was NO summer that year! The ‘little ice age’ (or the Maunder minimum) reached a peak in the later part of the Seventeenth century, its worst years being 1690 to 1698. These are recorded as having no summer at all. Could the constitently cold and damp weather have somehow contributed towards the creation of the phenomenon? It is a point that does not seem to have been considered by anyone.

A somewhat likely explanation for the cause of the phenomenon is given as follows in the 1852 publication of ‘On the ancient British, Roman and Saxon antiquities and folk-lore of Worcestershire,’ page 469:

It does at first glance seem a fairly likely explanation. Yet the notion that it was ignited by electricity bears some suspicion. Gaseous vapours concentrated together (say in a closed room) can be ignited by a spark, which is why undetected gas leaks can cause houses to go up with a bang. Out on the sands in wide open air it would have had to have been an extremely concentrated mixture to cause the effects so described. Perhaps some unknown factor rendered the elements in the air far more volatile than usual.

Another explanation was offered by the New Scientist magazine several years ago when one of its readers submitted a letter querying 1694. The magazine alluded to a then recent phenomenon that had occured at Moirans-en-Montagne in the French Jura mountains, elaborating an explanation that pockets of natural gas had caused the phenomenon. In its September 1983 issue the magazine examined at length the so called Egryn lights observed off the coast between Harlech and Barmouth in 1904-5. This cause was attributed to visible radiation issuing from the Mochras fault which stretches along the coast between both towns, known as ‘earth -lights.’

It is clear whatever source one reads it from, and the possible explanation offered by New Scientist, that the 1693-1694 phenomenon is NOT due to the Mochras fault, or earth lights, and most definitely not to UFO’s! Whether it was a decomposition of sea-weed, dead marine life or other unknown substances, it still seems bizarre when one considers the almost clockwork regularity which the phenomenon appeared and the fact that the disastrous effects only occured during the night. Oh well! There’s just one certainity to come out of all this – unless there is a real Tardis somewhere that can take us back in time, no-one will ever know what really happened during those strange months of 1694.

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