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The Carmarthenshire Historian


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Before literacy became the inheritance of the masses, the begetters of local history by way of the written word belonged very largely to the gentry and the professions. Theirs were the letters, diaries, inventories and other manuscripts that would help to tell the long story of the parish and the county and, at the same time, provide memorials to their lives more intimate and revealing than brass or stone. Because they could read they were the heirs of the ages and because they could write it was given to them to be testators to posterity. But their unlettered fellows could leave little more than anonymous labour, and although some would be remembered for their deeds, most would pass through the last gate into the oblivion from which there is no resurrection in the memory of men.

One who escaped this oblivion was Thomas Skeel of Laugharne, who early in the last century 'went for a soldier' to see the world. Uncommon among his comrades, he returned from the wars with a book in his knapsack and, unafraid, he rushed into the written word, if not into print, with a crude but discerning pen. Unknowingly, he wrote not for his own time but for posterity, for his uncultured manuscript was of a kind that needed a century and a half to acquire the bouquet that would delight readers of the present volume of The Carmarthenshire Historian.

As a story-teller Skeel passes the test, for the events he relates persist in the memory long after reading about them. We may deride the quality of his literacy, but we cannot resist his story, and although we may condemn his orthography, we should remain mindful of his phonology. We may scorn his style, too, but we ought not to overlook his dialect. Even so, Skeel's crudities and oddities posed an editorial problem. Should they be corrected in the interest of easy reading? After much thought editorial decision, in deference to aural effect, favoured the printing of his manuscript exactly as he wrote it. Only in a few cases too puzzling to allow of fluent reading has his meaning been made clearer. This has been done in brackets and never has it replaced the original text.

For his time, Skeel was an exceptional soldier. Many officers recorded their exploits and much of the total product has been published in print, but few in the ranks could have aspired to a manuscript of their adventures. Yet, though he went a-soldering, it is significant that Skeel rarely writes about life as a soldier, and only occasionally does he mildly complain about his arduous duties. There is no barrack-room talk and he refers to his comrades in general only when they are involved in an episode irresistable to his pen, most notable being the orgy that followed overseas enlistment. His is the inquisitive urge of the explorer and not all the promised rigours prevent him from being the first to volunteer for foreign service and all its adventures.

Skeel probably had no gazetteer or maps to aid him, but he was observant, knew exactly where he had been and marvelled at what he saw. With few exceptions, the place-names, though sometimes quaintly spelt, are easily recognisable and there is no difficulty in following his routes on a modern map. The pity is that the record of his adventures in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and France has not so far been uncovered, if it survives at all, that is. As it is, we can relish only the first volume of the record, the manuscript of which, by the way, is carefully bound, but whether at the instance of Skeel himself or of some later admirer we do not know.

It is said that there is a book in every man. Unlike most of us, Skeel managed to get his down on paper, and one hundred and fifty-six years later he has come into his own. He is in print at last.
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