Dolgellau stands in the centre of what was once the Celtic tribal lands of the Ordovices, who were conquered by the Romans in AS 77-78. While it does not seem as though a Roman fortress was located at the site of today's town - the area would have been marshy during the period - a few Roman coins from the reigns of the Emperors Hadrian and Trajan have been found in the vicinity, and three hillforts around Dolgellau remain of uncertain origin.
Following the withdrawal of Roman Forces from Britain, the Dolgellau area came under the control of a series of Welsh chieftains. It would seem that the story of Dolgellau as a town begins sometime around the late 11th or early 12th century when a settlement was established as a 'serf village' or maerdref, possibly by Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. It seems to have remained as such, as it is mentioned in these terms in annals during the reign of Henry Tudor (1485-1509).
While Cymer Abbey in nearby Llanelltyd, founded in 1198 was the most important religious centre locally, during the 12th century a church was built for the inhabitants of the maerdref. This building was later demolished and replaced by the current church built in 1716. It seems that from the mid 12th Century, Dolgellau gained in importance, and as such was mentioned in the Survey of Meirioneth ordered by Edward I. Later in 1404, during Owain Glyndwr's national uprising, Dolgellau became the location of a council of chiefs led by Glyndwr himself.
Perhaps the most infamous sons of the region were the Red Bandits of Mawddwy - Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy. These were a band of robbers from the Mawddwy region to the south of Dolgellau, who were active during the 16th Century and are remembered in the folk literature of the area, as well as in a number of place names such as Llety's Gwylliaid (bandits lodging) and Llety'r Lladron (robbers lodging) rear Bwlch Oerddrws. The pub in Mallwyd is also named Brigands Inn.
Another feature which has attracted attention to this region south of Dolgellau is a field known as Camlan, near Dinas Mawddwy. It has been claimed as the site of the last battle of King Arthur (based on a mention of the name in the Annales Cambriae; to the Battle of Camlann).
One of the most significant events in the town's history was a visit by the Quaker preacher George Fox in 1657. As a result many of the town's inhabitants converted to Quakerism. Quakers, like many other minority religions and denominations were persecuted fiercely at this time, and so, the majority of Dolgellau's Quakers emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1689 under the leadership of Rowland Ellis, a local gentleman-farmer. The connection between Dolgellau and Pennsylvania continues to this day, with the Pennsylvanian town of Bryn Mawr, which continues to bare the name of Ellis's farm on the outskirts of Dolgellau. The story of the Dolgellau Quakers and their oppression under the reign of Charles II was written as a historic novel by Marian Eames, and first published in 1969. Entitled 'Y Stafell Ddirgel' - the secret room, it has become a standard text for Welsh secondary school children. It was translated into English in 1975 and is sold under the title of 'The Secret Room'.
On the outskirts of Dolgellau is the manor house of Hengwrt. The 17th century owner of this House and Estate was Robert Vaughan (1592 - 1667). He kept an extensive library and was an avid collector of historic manuscripts. Amongst his collection were found some of the greatest literary treasures of Wales, including a The Book of Taliesin, the Black Book of Carmarthen, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Hengwrt manuscript.
By the end of the 18th century, output was calculated to be worth between £50,000 - £100,000 annually. However, with the introduction of mechanical looms in the 19th century, this industry went into decline. It was to be replaced by the town's other important activity which was tanning. This was to continue as an important contributor to the local economy as late as the 1980s.
During the 19th century, Dolgellau was to become the centre of a minor gold rush, as Clogau and St David's goldmine in Bontddu were commissioned to supply gold for many royal weddings.
Today, Dolgellau's economy relies mainly on tourism although agriculture continues to play a significant role, and as such a local farmers' market is held in the town on the third Sunday of every month, and each Friday, the town holds a 'diwrnod sêl' or sale day.
The town's name has an uncertain origin. 'Dôl' is Welsh for 'meadow' and 'gelli' means 'grove' or 'spinney', and is found commonly in local names for farms and sheltered nooks. While this is the most likely meaning 'Meadow of Groves', another suggestion is that the name could derive from the word 'cell' meaning 'cell', making the translation 'Meadow of Cells' which might relate to the monks cells at Cymer Abbey. The earliest written record of the name, in the 1253 Survey of Merioneth, shows it spelt as 'Dolkelew', although another spelling 'Dolgethley' dates from 1285. Between that time and the 19th century, most spellings were along the lines of "Dolgelly", "Dolgelli" or "Dolgelley" - indeed, Owain Glyndwr wrote it "Dolguelli", Thomas Pennant in his' Tours of Wales' spelt it "Dolgelleu" and it was this form that was used in the Church Registers in 1723. By 1825 the Registers had amended the spelling to "Dolgellau", the form that Robert Vaughan of Henwrt adopted in 1825. This remains the form used in both English and Welsh to this day.
Today, Dolgellau welcomes many thousands of visitors annually. Many who come from across the Atlantic to trace their ancestry, others to walk and enjoy the stunning scenery and taste the local culture. It is a haven for walkers and climbers who enjoy the challenges of the nearby mountain ranges including the famous Cadair Idris - the giant Idris' chair.