The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Cornish Folk-Lore (pp. 85-112)
CORNISH people possess in a marked degree all the characteristics of the Celts. They are imaginative, good speakers and story-tellers, describing persons and things in a style racy and idiomatical, often with appropriate gestures. Their proverbs are quaint and forcible, they are never at a lack for an excuse, and are withal very superstitious. Well-educated people are still to be met with in Cornwall who are firm believers in apparitions, pixies (fairies, called by the peasantry pisgies), omens, and other supernatural agencies. Almost every parish has a legend in connection with its patron saint, and haunted houses abound; but of the ghosts who inhabit them, unless they differ from those seen elsewhere, I shall say but little.
This county was once the fabled home of a race of giants, who in their playful or angry moments were wont to hurl immense rocks at each other, which are shown by the guides at this day as proofs of their great strength. To illustrate how in the course of time truth and fiction get strangely mingled, I will mention the fact that old John of Gaunt is said to have been the last of these giants, and to have lived in a castle on the top of Carn Brea (a high hill near Redruth). He could stride from thence to another neighbouring town, a distance of four miles. I do not know if he is supposed to be the one that lies buried under this mighty carn, and whose large protruding hand and bony fingers time has turned to stone. Here, too, in the dark ages, a terrific combat took place between Lucifer and a heavenly host, which ended in the former's overthrow. A small monument has been erected on Cam Brea to the memory of Lord de Dunstanville; and I once heard an old woman, after cleaning a room, say, "It was fine enough for Lord de Dunstanville." Every child has heard of Jack the Giant Killer, who, amongst his other exploits, killed by stratagem the one who dwelt at St. Michael's Mount:
"I am the valiant Cornishman
Who slew the giant Cormoran."
But the sayings and doings of these mighty men have been told far better than I could tell them in Mr. Halliwell Phillipp's book, Rambles in West Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants; Mr. Robert Hunt's Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of West Cornwall; Mr. Bottrell's Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall; and by many other writers.
Tourists visit West Cornwall to see the Land's End and its fine coast scenery, and express themselves disappointed that none of the country people in that district know anything of King Arthur. They forget that Uther's heir was washed up to Merlin's feet by a wave at the base of "Tintagel Castle by the Cornish sea," which is in the eastern part of the county. This castle was built on one of the grandest headlands in Cornwall (slate formation).
The ruins of King Arthur's Castle are most striking. They are situated partly on the mainland and partly on a peninsula, separated by a ravine, once said to have been spanned by a drawbridge connecting the two.
The ascent of this promontory, owing to the slippery nature of the path cut in the friable slate, is far from pleasant; and, as there was a stiff breeze blowing when I mounted it, I thought old Norden was right when he said: "Those should have eyes who would scale Tintagel." You are, however, amply repaid for your trouble when you get to the top.
In addition to telling you of the grandeur of the castle in good King Arthur's days, the guides show you some rock basins to which they have given the absurd names of "King Arthur's cups and saucers."
Tradition assigns this king another Cornish castle as a huntingseat, viz. the old earth-round of Castle-an-dinas, near St. Columb, from whence it is said he chased the wild deer on Tregoss Downs. A dreary drive through slate-quarries takes you from Tintagel to Camelford. Near that town is Slaughter Bridge, the scene of a great battle between King Arthur and his nephew Modred, whom by some writers he is said to have killed on the spot; others have it that Arthur died here of a wound from a poisoned arrow shot by Modred, and that, after receiving his death wound at Camelford, he was conveyed to Tintagel Castle, where, surrounded by his knights, he died. All the time he lay a-dying supernatural noises were heard in the castle, the ssa and winds moaned, and their lamentations never ceased until our hero was buried at Glastonbury. Then, in the pauses of the solemn tolling of the funeral bells, sweet voices came from fairyland welcoming him there, from whence one day he will return and again be king of Cornwall. No luck follows a man who kills a Cornish chough (a red-legged crow), as, after his death, King Arthur was changed into one.
"In the parish of St. Mabyn, in East Cornwall, and on the high road from Bodmin to Camelford, is a group of houses (one of them yet a smith's shop), known by the name of Longstone. The legend which follows gives the reason of the name:
"In lack of records I may say: 'In the days of King Arthur there lived in Cornwall' a smith. This smith was a keen fellow, who made and mended the ploughs and harrows, shod the horses of his neighbours, and was generally serviceable. He had great skill in farriery, and in the general management of sick cattle. He could also extract the stubbornest tooth, even if the jaw resisted, and some gyrations around the anvil were required.
"'There seems ever to have been ill blood between devil and smith, and so it was between the fiend and the smith-farrier-dentist of St. Mabyn. At night there were many and fierce disputes between them in the smithy. The smith, as the rustics tell, always got the advantage of his adversary, and gave him better than he brought. This success, however, only fretted Old Nick, and spurred him on to further encounters. What the exact matter of controversy on this particular occasion was is not remembered, but it was agreed to settle it by some wager, some trial of strength and skill. A two-acred field was near; and the smith challenged the devil to the reaping of each his acre in the shortest time. The match came off, and the devil was beaten, for the smith had beforehand stealthily stuck here and there over his opponent's acre some harrow-tines or teeth.
"'The two started well, but soon the strong swing of the fiend's scythe was brought up frequently by some obstruction, and as frequently he required the whetstone. The dexterous and agile smith went on smoothly with his acre, and was soon unmistakeably gaining. The devil, enraged at his certain discomfiture, hurled his whetstone at his rival, and flew off. The whetstone, thrown with great violence, after sundry whirls in the air, fell upright into the soil at a great depth, and there remained a witness against the Evil One for ages. The devil avoided the neighbourhood whilst it stood, but in an evil hour the farmer at Treblethick, near, threw it down. That night the enemy returned, and has haunted the neighbourhood ever since.
"'This monolith was of granite, and consequently brought hither from a distance, for the local stone is a friable slate. It yielded four large gate-posts, gave spans to a small bridge, and left much granite remaining.'"—T. G. Couch, Notes and Queries, April, 1883.
Upon St. Austell Down is an upright block of granite, called "the giant's staff, or longstone," to which this legend is attached:—"A giant, travelling one night over these hills, was overtaken by a storm, which blew off his hat. He immediately pursued it; but, being impeded by a staff which he carried in his hand, he thrust this into the ground until his hat could be secured. After wandering, however, for some time in the dark, without being able to find his hat, he gave over the pursuit and returned for the staff; but this also he was unable to discover, and both were irrevocably lost. In the morning, when the giant was gone, his hat and staff were both found by the country people about a mile asunder. The hat was found on White-horse Down, and bore some resemblance to a mill-stone, and continued in its place until 1798, when, some soldiers having encamped around it, they fancied, it is said, as it was a wet season, this giant's hat was the cause of the rain, and therefore rolled it over the cliff. The staff, or longstone, was discovered in the position in which it remains; it is about twelve feet high, and tapering toward the top, and is said to have been so fashioned by the giant that he might grasp it with ease."—Murray's Guide.
There is another longstone in the parish of St Cleer, about two miles north of Liskeard, which bears an inscription to Doniert (Dungerth), a traditional king of Cornwall, who was drowned in 872. In fact these "menhirs," supposed to be sepulchral monuments, are to be found scattered all over the county.
The following curious bit of folk-lore appeared in the Daily News of March 8th, 1883, communicated by the Rev. J. Hoskyns Abrahall, Coombe Vicarage, near Woodstock:—"A friend of mine, who is vicar of St. Cleer, in East Cornwall, has told me that at least one housemaid of his—I think his servants in general—very anxiously avoided killing a spider, because Parson Jupp, my friend's predecessor (whom he succeeded in 1844), was, it was believed, somewhere in the vicarage in some spider—no one knew in which of the vicarage spiders." Spiders are often not destroyed because of the tradition that one spun a web over Christ in the manger and hid him from Herod.
There are other superstitions current in Cornwall somewhat similar to the above. Maidens who die of broken hearts, after they have been deceived by unfaithful lovers, are said to haunt their betrayers as white hares. The souls of old sea-captains never sleep; they are turned into gulls and albatrosses. The knockers (a tribe of little people), who live underground in the tin-mines, are the spirits of the Jews who crucified our Saviour, and are for that sin compelled on Christmas morning to sing carols in his honour. "Jew" is a name also given to a black field-beetle (why, I know not). It exudes a reddish froth: country children hold it on their hands and say, "Jew! Jew! spit blood!" "A ghost at Pengelly, in the parish of Wendron, was compelled by a parson of that village after various changes of form to seek refuge in a pigeon-hole, where it is confined to this day."—Through Rev. S. Rundle.
After this digression I will return to St. Cleer, and, beginning with its holy well, briefly notice a few others. It is situated not far from the church, and was once celebrated as a "boussening," or ducking-well for the cure of mad people. Considerable remains of the baptistery, which formerly enclosed it, are still standing, and outside, close by, is an old stone cross. Carew says,—"There were many bowssening places in Cornwall for curing mad people, and amongst the rest one at Alter Nunne, in the hundred of Trigges, called St. Nunne's well, and because the manner of this bowssening is not so vnpleasing to heare as it was vneasie to feele, I wil (if you please) deliuer you the practise, as I receyued it from the beholders. The water running from S. Nunne's-well fell into a square and close-walled plot, which might be filled at what depth they listed. Vpon this wall was the franticke person set to stand, his backe toward the poole, and from thence with a sudden blow in the brest, tumbled headlong into the pond, where a strong fellowe, provided for the nonce, tooke him and tossed him vp and downe, alongst and athwart the water, vntill the patient by foregoing his strength had somewhat forgot his fury. Then was hee conueyed to the church and certain Masses sung ouer him; vpon which handling if his wits returned S. Nunne had the thanks: but if there appeared small amendment, he was bowssened againe and againe, while there remayned in him any hope of life for recouery." The same writer says of Scarlet's "well neare vnto Bodmin, howbeit the water should seem to be healthfull, if not helpfull: for it retaineth this extraordinary quality, that the same is .waightier than the ordinary of his kind, and will continue the best part of a yeere without alteration of sent or taste, only you shall see it represent many colours, like the Rain-bowe which (in my conceite) argueth a running throu some minerall veine and therewithall a possessing of some vertue." I must give one more quotation from Carew before I finish with him, about a well at Saltash:—"I had almost forgotten to tell you that there is a well in this towne whose water will not boyle peason to a seasonable softnes."
The holy-wells in Cornwall are very numerous; the greater part were in olden times enclosed in small baptisteries. Luckily the poor people believe that to remove any of the stones of the ruins of these chapels would be fatal to them and to their children, and for that reason a great number yet remain. It is considered unlucky, too, to cart away any of the druidical monuments (pieces of ancientcy), and many are the stories told of the great misfortunes that have fallen on men who have so done. The innocent oxen or horses who drag them away are always sure to die, and their master never prosper. Mr. T. G. Couch, in Notes and Queries, vol. x. gives this legend in connection with St. Nunn's well in Pelynt:—"An old farmer once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it; for it was not wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of the pig's stye; and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hill-side to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old position, where it has remained ever since. Nor will any one again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless."
This St. Nunn's well is not the "boussening" well formerly mentioned, but another dedicated to the same saint, and is resorted to as a divining and wishing well; it is commonly called by the people of that district the "Piskies' well." Pins are thrown into it, not only to see by the bubbles which rise on the water whether the wisher will get what he desires, but also to propitiate the piskies and to bring the thrower good luck. This county has many other divining wells which were visited at certain seasons of the year by those anxious to know what the future would bring them. Amongst them the Lady of Nant's well, in the parish of Golan, was formerly much frequented on Palm Sunday, when those who wished to foretell their fate threw into the water crosses made of palms. There was once in Gulval parish, near Penzance, a well which was reported to have had great repute as a divining well. People repaired to it to ask if their friends at a distance were well or ill, living or dead. They looked into the water and repeated the words:
"Water, water, tell me truly,
Is the man that I love duly
On the earth, or under the sod,
Sick or well? in the name of God."
Should the water bubble up quite clear, the one asked for was in good health; if it became puddled, ill; and should it remain still, dead. Of the wells of St. Roche, St. Maddern (now Madron), and St. Uny, I have spoken in the first part of this work at pp.
The waters from several wells are used for baptismal rites (one near Laneastis called the "Jordan"), and the children baptized with water from the wells of St. Euny (at the foot of Carn Brea, Redruth) and of Ludgvan (Penzance), &c., it was asserted could never be hanged with a hempen rope; but this prophecy has unfortunately been proved to be false. The water from the latter was famed too as an eye-wash, until an evil spirit, banished for his misdeeds by St. Ludgvan to the Red Sea, spat into it from malice as he passed. The Red Sea is the favourite traditional spot here for the banishment of wicked spirits, and I have been told stories of wicked men whose souls, immediately after their death, were carried off to well-known volcanoes.
Almost all these holy wells were once noted for the curing of diseases, but the water from St. Jesus' well in Miniver was especially famed for curing whooping-cough. The saints sometimes lived by the side of the holy wells named after them, notably St. Agnes (pronounced St. Ann), who dyed the pavement of her chapel with her own blood. St. Neot in whose pool were always three fish on which he fed, and whose numbers never grew less. St. Piran, the titular saint of tin-miners, who lived 200 years and then died in perfect health. Of these three saints many miraculous deeds are related; but they would be out of place in this work, and T will end my account of the wells by a description of St. Keynes, more widely known outside Cornwall through Southey's ballad than any of the others. It is situated in a small valley in the parish of St. Neots, and was in the days of Carew and Norden arched over by four trees, which grew so closely together that they seemed but one trunk. Both writers say the trees were withy, oak, elm, and ash (by withy I suppose willow was meant). They were all blown down by a storm, and about 150 years ago, Mr. Rashleigh, of Menabilly, replaced them with two oaks, two elms, and one ash. I do not know if they are living, but Mr. J. T. Blight in 1858, in his book on Cornish Crosses, speaks of one of the oaks being at that time so decayed that it had to be propped. The reputed virtue of the water of St. Keyne's well is, as almost all know, that after marriage "whether husband or wife come first to drink thereof they get the mastery thereby."—Fuller.
Southey makes a discomfited husband tell the story who ends thus:
"I hasten' d as soon as the wedding was done,
And left my wife in the porch;
But i'faith she had been wiser than me,
For she took a bottle to church."
St. Keyne not only thus endowed her well but during her stay at St. Michael's Mount she gave the same virtue to St. Michael's chair. This chair is the remains of an old lantern on the south-west angle of the tower at a height of upwards of 250 feet from low water. It is fabled to have been a favourite seat of St. Michael's. Whittaker, in his supplement to Polwhele's History of Cornwall, says, "It was for such pilgrims as had stronger heads and bolder spirits to complete their devotions at the Mount by sitting in this St. Michael's chair and showing themselves as pilgrims to the country round;" but it most probably served as a beacon for ships at sea. To get into it you must climb on to the parapet, and you sit with your feet dangling over, a sheer descent of at least seventy feet; but it is much more difficult to get out of it, as the sitter is obliged to turn round in the seat. Notwithstanding this, and the danger of a fall through giddiness, which, of course, would be certain death, for there is not the slightest protection, I have seen ladies perform the feat. Curiously enough Southey has also written a ballad on St. Michael's chair, but it is not as popular as the one before quoted; it is about "Richard Penlake and Rebecca his wife," "a terrible shrew was she." In pursuance of a vow made when Richard "fell sick," they went on a pilgrimage to the Mount, and whilst he was in the chapel,
"She left him to pray, and stole away
To sit in St. Michael's chair.
Up the tower Rebecca ran,
Round and round and round;
'Twas a giddy sight to stand atop
And look upon the ground.
'A curse on the ringers for rocking
The tower!' Rebecca cried,
As over the church battlements
She strode with a long stride.
'A blessing on St. Michael's chair!"
She said as she sat down:
Merrily merrily rung the bells,
And out Rebecca was thrown.
Tidings to Richard Penlake were brought
That his good wife was dead;
'Now shall we toll for her poor soul
The great church bell?' they said.
'Toll at her burying,' quoth Richard Penlake,
'Toll at her burying,' quoth he;
'But don't disturb the ringers now
In compliment to me.'"
Old writers give the name of "Caraclowse in clowse" to St. Michael's Mount, which means the Hoar Rock in the "Wood; and that it was at one time surrounded by trees is almost certain, as at very low tides in Mount's Bay a "submarine forest," with roots of large trees, may still be clearly seen. At these seasons branches of trees, with leaves, nuts, and beetles, have been picked up.
Folk-lore speaks of a time when Scilly was joined to the mainland, which does not seem very improbable when we remember that within the last twenty-five years a high road and a field have been washed away by the sea between Newlyn and Penzance. An old lady, whose memory went back to the beginning of the present century, told me that she had often seen boys playing at cricket in some fields seaward of Newlyn, of which no vestige in my time remained.
But the Lyonnesse, as this tract of land, containing 140 parish churches, between the Land's End and Scilly was called, and where, according to the Poet Laureate, King Arthur met his death-wound:
"So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea,
Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord,
King Arthur . . . . ."
is reputed to have been suddenly overwhelmed by a great flood. Only one man of all the dwellers on it is said to have escaped death, an ancestor of the Trevilians (now Trevelyan). He was carried on shore by his horse into a cove at Perran. Alarmed by the daily inroad of the sea, he had previously removed his wife and family. Old fishermen of a past generation used to declare that on clear days and moonlight nights they had often seen under the water the roofs of churches, houses, &c., of this submerged district.
Whether the memory of this flood is perpetuated by the old proverb, "As ancient as the floods of Dava," once commonly current in West Cornwall, but which I have not heard for years, I know not, as I have never met with any one who could tell me to what floods it referred.
Old folks often compared an old-fashioned child to St. Michael's Mount, and quaintly said: "She's a regular little Mount; St. Michael's Mount will never be washed away while she's alive."
Tradition also tells of a wealthy city in the north of Cornwall, called Langarrow, which for its wickedness was buried in sand, driven in by a mighty storm. All that district as far west as St. Ives is sand, known as "Towans," and the sand is always encroaching.
There is a little church now near Padstow, dedicated to St. Enodoc, which is often almost covered by the shifting drifts. It is in a solitary situation, and service is only held there once a year, when a path to it has to be cut through the sand. It is said that the clergyman, in order to keep his emoluments and fees, has been sometimes obliged to get into it through a window or hole in the roof.
About eight miles from Truro is the lost church of Perranzabuloe, which for centuries was supposed to have been a myth, but the shifting of the sand disclosed it in 1835.
la Hayle owans is buried the castle of Tendar, the Pagan chief who persecuted the Christians, and in the neighbouring parish of Lehant that of King Theodrick, who, after beheading, in Ireland, many saints, crossed over to Cornwall on a millstone.
The afore-mentioned lost city was most likely a very small place, as I asked an old woman three or four years ago, who lived not far from the little village of Gwithian, where I could get something I wanted, and she told me, "In the city."
The bay between this place and St. Ives (St. Ives Bay) has the reputation of being haunted at stormy times before a shipwreck by a lady in white, who carries a lantern.
At Nancleadra, a village near St. Ives, was formerly a logan rock, which could only be moved at midnight; and children were cured of rickets by being placed on it at that hour. It refused to rock for those who were illegitimate.
Not far from here is Towednack, and there is a legend to the effect that the devil would never allow the tower of its church to be completed, pulling down at night what had been built up in the day. When a person makes an inaudible statement he is in West Cornwall told "To go to Towednack quay-head where they christen calves." (No part of this parish touches the sea.)
Mr. Robert Hunt records a curious test of innocency which, not long since, was practised in this parish. "A farmer in Towednack having been robbed of some property of no great value was resolved, nevertheless, to employ a test which he had heard the 'old people' resorted to, for the purpose of catching the thief. He invited all his neighbours into his cottage, and, when they were assembled, he placed a cock under the 'brandice' (an iron vessel, formerly much employed by the peasantry in baking when this process was carried out on the hearth, the fuel being furze and ferns). Every one was directed to touch the brandice with his, or her, third finger, and say: 'In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, speak.' Every one did as they were directed, and no sound came from beneath the brandice. The last person was a woman, who occasionally laboured for the farmer in his fields. She hung back, hoping to pass unobserved amongst the crowd. But her very anxiety made her a suspected person. She was forced forward, and most unwillingly she touched the brandice, when, before she could utter the words prescribed, the cock crew. The woman fell faint on the floor, and, when she recovered, she confessed herself to be the thief, restored the stolen property, and became, it is said, 'a changed character from that day.'"
The following was told me by a friend. It took place in a school of one of our western parishes about sixty years ago:—"It was in the days of quill pens, and the master had lost his penknife. Every boy pleaded not guilty. At twelve the master said no boy should leave the school for half-an-hour, when he would return and see if they had found his knife. The door was locked, and at the appointed time he came back with a small, round table, on which he had inserted a 'half-strike' (4 gallons) measure. The table was placed in the middle of the gangway; the master stood by the side of it, and asked if they had found his knife. All said 'No!' 'Well then,' answered he, 'come out slowly one at a time and let each touch this measure with the right forefinger, and the bantam-cock under it will crow at the thief,' The boys went out, boldly as they passed touching the tub, but the master missed one whom from the first he had suspected. He again locked the door, searched the rooms, and there, under a desk, not in his own place, he found the boy hiding. He began to cry, confessed the theft, and gave up the knife."
Another test of innocency, practised in bygone days, was to kindle a fire on one of the table-men (large flat stones), so common in villages in West Cornwall. A stick lit at this was handed to the accused, who had to put out the fire by spitting on it. It is wellknown that fear dries up saliva.
I will describe another rough ordeal before I go on to the legends of the Land's End district. It is called "Riding the hatch," or "heps" (a half-door often seen at small country shops). Any man formerly accused of immorality was brought before a select number of his fellow-parishioners, and by them put to sit astride the "heps," which was shaken violently backwards and forwards: if he fell into the house he was judged innocent; but out on the road, guilty. When any one has been brought before his superiors and remanded he is still figuratively said "to have been made to ride the 'heps.'" Hands are washed, as by Pontius Pilate, to clear a person from crime, and to call any one "dirty-fingered" is to brand liim as a thief.
On a bench-end in Zennor church there is a very singular carving of a mermaid. To account for it Zennor folks say that hundreds of years ago a beautifully-attired lady, who came and went mysteriously, used occasionally to attend their church and sing so divinely that she enchanted all who heard her. She came year after year, but never aged nor lost her good looks. At last one Sunday, by her charms, she enticed a young man, the best singer in the parish, to follow her: he never returned, and was heard of no more. A long time after, a vessel lying in Pendower cove, into which she sailed one Sunday, cast her anchor, and in someway barred the access to a mermaid's dwelling. She rose up from the sea, and politely asked the captain to remove it. He landed at Zennor, and related his adventure, and those who heard it agreed that this must have been the lady who decoyed away the poor young man.
Not far from St. Just is a solitary, dreary cairn, known as Cairn Kenidzhek (pronounced Kenidjack), which means the "hooting cairn," so called from the unearthly noises which proceed from it on dark nights. It enjoys a very bad reputation as the haunt of witches. Close under it lies a barren stretch of moorland, the "Gump," over it the devil hunts at night poor lost souls; he rides on the half-starved horses turned out here to graze and is sure to overtake them at a particular stile. It is often the scene of demon fights, when one holds the lanthorn to give the others light, and is also a great resort of the pixies. Woe to the unhappy person who may be there after nightfall: they will lead him round and round, and he may be hours before he manages to get out of the place away from his tormentors. Here more than once some fortunate persons have seen "the small people" too, at their revels, and their eyes have been dazzled by the sight of their wonderful jewels; but if they have ever managed to secrete a few, behold next morning they were nothing but withered leaves, or perhaps snail-shells.
Sennen Cove was much frequented by mermaids. This place was also resorted to by a remarkable spirit called the Hooper—from the hooping, or hooting sounds it was accustomed to make. In old times, according to tradition, a compact cloud of mist often came in from over the sea, when the weather was by no means foggy, and rested on the rocks called Cowloc, thence it spread itself like a curtain of cloud quite across Sennen Cove. By night a dull light was mostly seen amidst the vapour, with sparks ascending as if a fire burned within it: at the same time hooping sounds were heard proceeding therefrom. People believed the misty cloud shrouded a spirit, which came to forewarn them of approaching storms, and that those who attempted to put to sea found an invisible force—seemingly in the mist—to resist them. A reckless fisherman and his son, however, disregarding the token, launched their boat and beat through the fog with a "threshal" (flail); they passed the cloud of mist which followed them, and neither the men nor the hooper were ever more seen in Sennen Cove. This is the only place in the county where any tradition of such a guardian spirit is preserved.—Bottrell.
The same author tells too a story of a reputed astrologer called Dionysius "Williams, who lived in May-on, in Sennen, a century ago. He found his furze-rick was diminishing faster than it ought, and discovered by his art that some women in Sennen Cove were in the habit of taking it away at night. The very next night when all honest folks should be in bed an old woman from the Cove came as was her wont to his rick for a "burn" of furze. She made one of no more than the usual size but could not lift it, neither could she after she had lightened her "burn" by half. Frightened, she tried to take out the rope and run away, but she could neither draw it out nor move herself. Of course Mr. Williams had put a spell upon her, and there she had to remain in the cold all night. He came out in the morning and released her, giving her, as she was poor, the furze. Neither she nor the other women ever troubled him again.
Before proceeding any further, to make an allusion in the next legend intelligible, I must say something about Tregeagle (pronounced Tregaygle), the Cornish Bluebeard, who was popularly supposed to have sold his soul to the devil, that his wishes might be granted for a certain number of years; and who, in addition to several other crimes, is accused of marrying and murdering many rich heiresses to obtain their money. One day, just before his death, he was present when one man lent a large sum to another without receiving receipt or security for it (the money was borrowed for Tregeagle). Soon after Tregeagle's death the borrower denied that he had over had it, and the case was brought into Bodmin Court to be tried, when the defendant said, "If Tregeagle ever saw it I wish to God that Tregeagle may come into court and declare it." No sooner were the words spoken than Tregeagle appeared, and gave his witness in favour of the plaintiff, declaring "that he could not speak falsely; but he who had found it so easy to raise him would find it difficult to lay him." The money was paid, but the wretched man was followed night and day by the spirit, and great labour had the parsons and wise men before they could finally rid him of his tormentor. There are many versions of this transaction. Tregeagle himself is said in another to have received the money for an estate of which he was steward and not to have entered it in his books. His ghost was doomed to do many impossible things, such as to empty Dosmery pool, near Bodmin Moor, with a limpet shell that had a hole in the bottom. This pool had the reputation, too, of being bottomless; but it has lately been cut into and drained by the workers of the granite quarries. Strange tales are told in that neighbourhood of his appearing to people, and of his dismal howls at not being able to fulfil his tasks. Mothers all over Cornwall when their children are loudly crying may be often heard to declare "that they are roaring worse them Tregeagle." "A tradition of the neighbourhood says that on the shores of this lonely mere (Dosmery pool) the ghosts of bad men are ever employed in binding the sand in bundles with 'beams' (bands) of the same. These ghosts, or some of them, were driven out (they say horsewhipped out) by the parson from Launceston."—H. G. T. Notes and Queries, December, 1850.
Tregeagle had also to remove the sand from one cove to another, where the sea always returned it. It was on one of these expeditions that either by accident or design he dropped a sackful at the mouth of Loe-pool, near Helston. (When in wet seasons the waters of this pool rise to such a height as to obstruct the working of the mills on its banks, and heavy seas have silted up the sand at its mouth, the Mayor of Helston presents by ancient custom two leather purses containing three halfpence each as his dues to the lord of Penrose who owns Loe-pool, and asks for permission to cut a passage through the bar to the sea.) Another of Tregeagle's tasks is to make and carry away a truss of sand bound with a rope of sand from Gwenvor (the cove at Whitsand Bay) near the Land's End. But his unquiet spirit finds no rest, for whilst he is trying to do his never-ending work the devil hunts him from place to place, until he hides for refuge in a hermit's ruined chapel on St. Roche's rocks (East Cornwall).
"When the sea roars before a storm people in the Land's End district say "Tregeagle is calling," and often, too, his voice may be heard lamenting around Loe-pool.
The substance of the following I had from a Penzance man (H. R. C), to whom I must own I am indebted for much information about Cornish folk-lore. All his life he has in his business mingled with the peasantry of West Cornwall, and, unlike myself, he comes from a long line of Cornishmen.
"You know Gwenvor Sands, in Whitesand Bay, at the Land's End, and have heard of the unresting spirit of Tregeagle, by whom that spot is haunted. He foretells storms, and calls before the wind reaches home. I have often heard him howling before a westerly hurricane in the still of midnight at my house in Penzance, a distance of ten miles."
Tradition tells that on these sands, many centuries ago, some foreigners landed, and fought a great battle with the inhabitants, under King Arthur, on Vellan-drucher Moor. "Where Madron, Gulval, and Zennor meet, there is a flat stone where Prince Arthur and four British kings dined, and the four kings collected the native Cornish who fought under them at the battle of Yellan Drucher."—(Bottrell.) This was long before the Spaniards (pronounced Spanyers) in 1595 came ashore at the same place from a galley "high by day" (in broad daylight), and burnt Vellan-dreath, a mill close by.
These foreigners are popularly supposed to be red-haired Danes, and they stayed so long "that the birds built in the rigging of their ships." In all the western parishes of Cornwall there has existed time out of mind a great antipathy to certain red-haired families, who are said to be their descendants, and, much to their disgust, they are often hailed as Danes (pronounced Deanes). Indeed this dislike is carried so far that few would allow any members of their families to intermarry with them. In addition to the usual country gossip in the beginning of this century amongst the women of this district whilst knitting at their doors (for the Cornish are famous "knitsters"), or sitting round "breeding" (netting) fishing-nets, they had one never-failing topic of conversation in their fears that the foreigners would land once more on Gwenvor Sands, or at Priest's Cove, in Pendeen, near St. Just. Who these strangers were to be they were not at all sure, but they knew that the red-haired Danes were to come again, when Vellan Drucher (a water mill-wheel) would once more be worked with blood, and the kings for the last time would dine around the Garrick Zans (Table Mên); and the end of the world would come soon after: for had not Merlin so prophesied more than a thousand years ago? Garrick Zans is the old name for a large flat stone, the Table Men (pronounced Mayon), at Sennen, near the Land's End, and seven mythical Saxon kings are said to have dined at it when on a visit to Cornwall, A.D. 600. "Around it old folk went nine times daily from some notion that it was lucky and good against witchcraft."—(Bottrell.)
Off the Land's End is a very striking rock rising out of the sea. It is known as the Irish Lady, from the fact that an Irish vessel was once wrecked on it, and out of all on board one poor lady alone managed to scramble up to the top; but no boat could get to her, and, exhausted by fatigue, she fell into the water, and was drowned. Her spirit still haunts the spot. This is most probably a fanciful tale, as the rock bears some resemblance to a human figure.
"During a dreadful thunderstorm and hurricane on the 80th January, 1648, the day on which King Charles was beheaded, a large stone figure of a man, called the 'Armed Knight,' which stood in an upright position at the extremity of the Land's End, forty fathoms above the level of the sea, was thrown down. On the same day a ship riding in St. Ives Bay, having on board the king's wardrobe and other furniture belonging to the royal family, bound for France, broke from her moorings, and ran ashore on the rocks of Godrevy Island, where all on board, about sixty persons, were drowned, except one man and a boy."—G. S. Gilbert's Cornwall.
The name of Armed Knight has been transferred to another pile of rocks off the Land's End. The "stone figure" thrown down was most probably a natural formation, as one of the rocks there now bears the fanciful name of Dr. Johnson's Head, from a supposed likeness. Other versions of this legend say "that the Armed Knight was only ninety feet high, with an iron spire on its top."
Porthgwarra in olden times was known as Sweetheart's Cove from the following circumstance: The daughter of a well-to-do farmer loved a sailor, who was once one of her father's serving-men. Her parents, especially her mother, disapproved of the match; and when the young man returned from sea and came to see his sweetheart, he was forbidden the house. The lovers however met, and vowed to be true to each other, Nancy saying, "That she would never marry any other man," and William, "That, dead or alive, he would one day claim her as his bride." He again went to sea, and for a long time no tiding came, neither from nor of him. Poor Nancy grew melancholy, and spent all her days, and sometimes nights, looking out seaward from a spot on the cliff, called then Nancy's Garden, now Hella Point. She gradually became quite mad; and one night fancied she heard her lover tapping at her bed-room window, and calling her to come out to him, saying: "Sleepest thou, sweetheart? Awaken, and come hither, love. My boat awaits us at the cove. Thou must come this night, or never be my bride." She dressed, went to the cove, and was never seen again. Tradition says that the same night William appeared to his father, told him that he had come for his bride, and bade him farewell; and that next day the news arrived of his having been drowned at sea. Bottrell gives a full account of this legend under the title of "The Tragedy of Sweet William and Fair Nancy."
Not far from the parish of St. Levan is a small piece of ground—"Johanna's Garden,"— which is fuller of weeds than of flowers. The owner of it was one Sunday morning in her garden gathering greens for her dinner, when she saw St. Levan going by to catch some fish for his. He stopped and greeted her, upon which she reproved him for fishing on a Sunday, and asked him what he thought would be his end if he did so. He tried to convince her that it was not worse than picking greens, but she would not listen to reason. At last St. Levan lost patience, and said—"From this time for ever thou shalt be known, if known at all, as the Foolish Johanna, and thy garden shall ever continue to bear, as now, more hemlocks and nettles than leeks and lentils. Mark this! to make thy remembrance the more accursed for all time to come, if any child of thy name be baptised in the waters of Parchapel-well (close at hand) it shall become a fool, like thyself, and bad luck follow it."—Bottrell.
There is a cleft-stone in St. Levan churchyard called St. Levan's stone; but it is said to have been venerated in the days of king Arthur; and Merlin, who once visited these parts with him, uttered this prophecy concerning it:—
"When, with panniers astride,
A pack-horse can ride
Through St. Levan's stone
The world will be done."
Unless some earthquake splits it further the world will last thousands of years longer.
On an almost inaccessible granite peak seaward of the pile of rocks known as Castle Treryn (pronounced Treen), once the haunt and meeting-place of witches, on the summit of which is perched the farfamed Cornish logan-rock, is a sharp peak with a hole in it, large enough to insert a hand. At the bottom lay an egg-shaped stone, traditionally called the key of the castle, which, although easily shifted, had for ages defied all attempts at removal. It was said that should any one ever succeed in getting it out. Castle Treryn—in fact the whole cairn—would immediately disappear. It was unfortunately knocked out by the men who replaced the logan-rock, thrown down by Lieutenant Goldsmith. Its position was often altered by heavy seas, and from it the old folk formerly foretold the weather.
In Buryan parish, named after an Irish saint, a king's daughter, who came into Cornwall with some of her companions in the fifth century, is the famous circle of Dawns Myin, or the Merry Maidens, originally consisting of nineteen upright stones. They are nineteen maidens, who for their sin of dancing on a Sunday were all turned into stone. Two menhirs in a neighbouring field are the pipers, who at the same time suffered the same fate. Of these and other stone circles an old writer says, "No man when counting them can bring the stones twice to the same number."
Not far from Bury an, between Sennen and Penzance, is a very solitary weird spot—a disused Quakers' burial-ground. In its lonely neighbourhood is sometimes seen by a privileged few "nigh by day" the spirit of a huntsman, followed by his dogs. He is dressed in the hunting costume of bygone ages; he suddenly appears, for neither his horse's hoofs nor his dogs make any sound, jumps over an adjacent hedge, and is as suddenly lost to view. I do not know if tradition has ever connected this huntsman with Wild Harris of Kenegie, who was killed when hunting by a fall from his horse—it was frightened by a white hare, the spirit of a deserted maiden, which crossed its path. His ghost, in his hunting-dress, appeared standing at the door of his house the night he was buried—the funeral, according to an old custom, had taken place at midnight. For years after he might be met in the vicinity of his home, and he and his boon companions were often heard carousing at nights in a summer-house on the bowling-green. Few then cared to pass Kenegie after dark, for his was said not to be the only spirit that haunted the place. Wild Harris's ghost was finally laid to rest by a famous ghost-laying parson, and put as a task to count the blades of grass nine times in an enclosure on the top of Castle-an-Dinas, an old earth fortification near, where he is said to have met his death.
On the opposite side of Buryan to the Quakers' burial-ground is the parish of Paul (St. Pol-de-Leon). Its church was burnt by the Spaniards in 1595. They landed on a rock, said to have been named after Merlin—Merlin's car—and marched from Paul to Penzance, which they also fired in several places. I am afraid the inhabitants did not make a very bold stand against them; for Merlin had prophesied centuries before—
"That they should land on the rock of Merlin,
Who would bum Paul, Penzance, and Newlyn."
And this caused them to lose courage, and falsify the old proverb:
"Car and Pen, Pol and Tre'
Would make the devil run away."
Close by the highway, where the Buryan road joins the high-road from Paul to Penzance, is a smoothly-cut, conical granite stone, popularly supposed to have been placed there in memory of some woman who was found murdered at that spot, with nothing on to identify her, and with only a thimble and ring in her pocket. It really marks the place where an ancient gold ring, three inches and a-half in diameter, bearing the motto, "In hac spe vivo," was discovered in 1781. In the same parish, a short walk from this place, are some Druidical remains, which have the curious name of "Kerrisroundago." Some stones taken from it to repair Penzance pier were fatal to the horses who drew them, although they were young and healthy.
In the adjacent parish of Newlyn, a fishing village, the favourite resort of artists, a great deal of gossiping on summer evenings goes on around the small wells (here called peeths), whilst the women wait patiently for each in turn to fill her earthern pitchers; some of the most industrious bring their knitting in their pockets with them. Opposite one of these wells, towering over St. Peter's church, is a striking pile of rocks, "Tolcarn." On the summit are some curious markings in the stones, which, when a child, I was told were the devil's footprints; but the following legend, which I give on the authority of the Rev. W. S. Lach-Szyrma, Vicar of St. Peters, is quite new to me:—
"The summit of the rock is reticulated with curious veins of el van, about which a quaint Cornish legend relates that the Buccaboo, or storm-god of the old Cornish, once stole the fishermen's net. Being pursued by Paul choir, who sang the Creed, he flew to the top of Paul hill and thence over the Coombe to Tolcarn, where he turned the nets into stone."
We have now reached the town of Penzance, and through its streets those of the last generation often heard rumbling at midnight an old-fashioned coach drawn by headless horses; or a procession of coffins might be seen slowly wending its way to the churchyard. It was unlucky to meet this, as death was sure soon to follow, and tradition speaks of a woman who accidentally struck against one and died in the same night. A coach with headless horses and coachman also, just before Christmas, went through the streets of Penryn; this coachman had the power of spiriting away people who met and stared at him, unless they turned their heads and averted the evil by some mystical signs. In Penzance town were many haunted houses, but space will only allow of my noticing a few. One in Chapel Street (formerly Our Lady's Street) was tenanted by the spirit of Mrs. Baines, an eccentric old lady. At the back of her house was a very fine orchard well stocked with fruit-trees, which the boys were too fond of visiting. She determined at last that her gardener should watch for them, armed with an old blunderbuss, charged with peas and small shot. She gave him strict orders should he see any one to say one, two, three, and then fire. He watched two nights, but the boys were too cunning for him, and still the fruit went. On the third, Mrs. Baines, thinking to catch him napping, went herself into the garden and began to shake the apples down from one of the trees. Some say that the man recognised his mistress, and, vexed at her suspecting him, said one, two, three as quickly as he could utter the words and fired. Others, that he was sleeping, and awakened by the noise she made shot her by mistake, exclaiming "I know-ee, you thief, I do; now I'll sarve-ee out, I will." Terrified after he had done the deed, he ran off into the country and there hid himself for some days. The poor old lady was more frightened than hurt, and all the shot were successfully extracted by her doctor; but very soon after this adventure she died. From this time her house and grounds began to have an evil reputation; Mrs. Baines's ghost, dressed in antiquated garb, a quaint lace cap on her powdered hair, lace ruffles hanging from her sleeves, and a short môde mantle over her shoulders, was often seen walking in the gardens or standing under an apple-tree, leaning on the gold-headed cane she always carried. Indoors, too, her high-heeled shoes were plainly heard night after night tapping on the floors as she paced up and down the rooms, which noise was often varied by the whirring of her spinning-wheel. For some time the house was unoccupied, now it is divided into two, and the ghost has been laid to rest. But long after Mrs. Baines ceased to appear her wheel was heard. At last it was discovered that some leather, which had been nailed around a door to keep out draughts, was loose in places, and that the whistling of the wind through this made the peculiar sound. Mr. Bottrell says "that her spirit was laid by a parson, whose name he thinks was Singleton, and he succeeded in getting her away to the Western Green (west of Penzance), which was then spread over many acres of land, where the waves now roll. Here this powerful parson single-handed bound her to spin from the banks ropes of sand for the term of a thousand years, unless she, before that time, spun a sufficiently long and strong one to reach from St. Michael's Mount to St. Clement's Isle (across the bay)." About a stone's throw from Mrs. Baines's house, on an eminence above Quay Street, stood in her days Penzance Chapel of Ease, for Penzance was then in Madron parish, called Our Lady's or St. Mary's Chapel. On the same site was built in 1835 the present parish church of St. Mary's. Here, in the memory of a few who still survive, a gentleman in the early part of the century did penance, and afterwards walked from thence through the streets to his house, wrapped in a sheet, with a lighted taper in his hand. It was usual then, as now, for the Mayor and Corporation of Penzance, with the mace-bearers and constables, to go once a month in state to church. Before the reading of the first lesson the mace-bearers left, and visited the public-houses, in order to see that they were shut during service time. When the sermon began they came back and returned to their seats in order to be in readiness to escort the Mayor home. Quay Street was once the most fashionable part of Penzance, but the large houses are now divided into smaller tenements; in some of them bits of finely-moulded ceilings, &c. still exist. One of the houses reputed to have been haunted was torn down in 1813, when the skeleton of a man was found built into a wall. It was, of course, put down to be the sailor's, whose spirit was so often seen there, and who (tradition said) had been murdered in that house for the sake of his money. It was well known that he had brought back great riches from foreign parts. There is a myth that Sir Walter Raleigh landed at Penzance Quay when he returned from Virginia, and on it smoked the first tobacco ever seen in England, but for this I do not believe that there is the slightest foundation. Several western ports, both in Devon and Cornwall, make the same boast.
It is a fact, however, that the news of Nelson's death was first heard here. It was brought into the port by two fishermen, who had it from the crew of a passing vessel. A small company of strolling actors were playing that night at the little theatre then standing over some stables in Chapel Street, and the play was stopped for a few moments whilst one of the actors told the audience.
Another haunted house, at the opposite side of Penzance, is celebrated in a poem called "The Petition of an Old Uninhabited House," written and published in 1811 by the Rev. C. V. Le Grice, who was then vicar of Madron. He was a friend of Charles Lamb, who mentions him in his "Essay on Christ's Hospital." About this house a lady once told me a strange story, that I will relate. Forty years ago, she, a perfect stranger to the place, never having been in Penzance before, came to it with her husband and her first child, for she was then a young wife. As they meant to settle in the town, they went first to an hotel, where they intended staying until they could get a suitable house. On the evening of their arrival, her husband having gone out, she sat alone before the fire nursing her child, when she suddenly saw a little old man, in a very old-fashioned dress, come into the room. He sat down in a chair near her, looked steadfastly into the fire, and, after some time, without saying a word, he rose and left. On her husband's return, she told him of her queer visitor. The next morning they made inquiries about him, and found that the hotel had been built on the site of the old uninhabited house, that nearly the whole of it had been destroyed, but a few of the best rooms remained; and that they were in a haunted chamber. She declared that she could never sleep there another night, and, temporarily, they engaged some furnished lodgings. These old rooms are now pulled down long since, and billiard and other rooms cover the place where they stood.
Outside the boundary-stone, west of Penzance, stands, in its own grounds, a house to which additions have been made by many succeeding generations. Tradition, of course, gave it a ghost. With the other members of my family, I lived there for several years, but none of us ever saw it. I am bound, however, to state that we never slept in the haunted chamber. For a short period it was occupied by a groom, who one morning came to me with a very long face, and said he dared not sleep there any more, for some mysterious being came night after night, and pulled all the bed-clothes off him; rather than do so, he would sleep in the harness-room.
Still further west of Penzance is a much larger house, to which, like the former, many additions have been made. And up its avenue, after dark, a carriage may be often heard slowly making its way until it reaches the hall-door, where it stops. In this house, about sixty years ago, lived, in very great style, a gentleman, who was a regular autocrat, and of him one of his old servants related to me this anecdote, which is curious as an illustration of the manners of those times. When in his employ, he gave an answer to some question, which afterwards his master discovered to be an untruth. The next Sunday he made him, as the congregation came out, stand at Madron church door, by a tombstone covered with loaves of bread. Of these, he had to give one to each poor person that passed, and say, in an audible tone, "I, William ——, last week told my master a lie."
Mr. G. B. Millett, in his Penzance Past and Present, gives a tale well known in this district, about the drinking habits of our ancestors, which, as I am now on the subject of manners, I will quote.
"A particular gentleman, not far from Penzance, loved good liquor, and one evening had gathered some of his jovial companions together, determined to make a night of it. His wife, having had some experience of such gatherings before, with wise precaution, saw as much wine taken out of the cellar as she thought would be good for her husband and his friends. Then, safely locking the strong oak door, she put the key in her pocket, and announced her intention of spending the evening with some lady friends. The hours were passing pleasantly away, and, with a smile of inward satisfaction, she was congratulating herself upon the success of her forethought, when a heavy stumbling noise was heard upon the stairs, and shortly afterwards two burly footmen staggered into the room, groaning under the weight of a ponderous cellar door, with its posts and lintel, which had been sent by their master for their mistress to unlock."
The manor of Conerton, which at one time nearly included the whole of West Penwith, had many privileges in Penzance. Before the days of county courts, the lord held a monthly court here for the trial of small cases not criminal. Its prison, a wretched place (visited by Howard), no longer exists, but people were confined in it early in this century—sometimes for long periods. I was once shown a beautiful patchwork quilt made in it by a poor woman, who had been imprisoned there for debt.
Until within the last fifty years every butcher in Penzance market had to pay to the bailiff of this manor at Christmas a marrow-bone or a shilling. The first butcher who refused to pay it also defied one of the bye-laws of the market that compelled them to wear white sleeves over their blue blouses. He was brought before the magistrates, and declared "that he would be incarcerated before he would do it." The following is a favourite story handed down amongst the butchers from father to son. A solicitor in Penzance had a very large dog that was in the habit of coming into their market and stealing joints of meat from the stalls. One day one of them went to the lawyer, and said,—"Please, sir, could I sue the owner of a dog for a leg of mutton stolen from my stall?" "Certainly, my good man." "Then, please sir, the dog is yours, and the price of the mutton is 4s. 6d." The money was paid, and the man was going away in triumph, when he was called back by these words: "Stay a moment, my good man, a lawyer's consultation is 6s. 8d., you owe me the difference:" which sum the discomfited butcher had to pay.
I do not know that the next anecdote can strictly be called folk-lore, and I would not give it had not the last phrase already passed into a proverb in Penzance. When the Volunteer movement was first started, one of the Duke of Cornwall's First Volunteers (as the corps here is named),—I will call him Penkivell—was very enthusiastic, and diligently performed the drill-practise in a loft over his kitchen. One day he gave the word of command —"Private Penkivell, two steps, and fall back." He quite forgot that he was near a trap-door, and down he came through it, crashing the crockery that stood on his wife's "dresser" below. Alarmed at the noise, she ran to see what was the matter, and at the sight of her broken teacups, &c., began to scold. But he stopped her peremptorily, saying, "Woman, hold your tongue! What do you know about war!"
- Uther is still used as a Christian name in Cornwall.
- The Cornish manner of pronouncing the name of St. Clare.
- Supposed to have been shads, vulgarly here called "Chuck-cheldern" from the number of bones in them.
- A fuller account of Tregeagle and his wonderful doings may be found in Bottrell's Traditions, West Cornwall.
- A monastery existed there, and in 1883 portions of the building were still standing.
- A gentleman's seat in the parish of Gulval, near Penzance.
- There is a small enclosure near the castle, where several members of the family of Hosking were interred, owing to a quarrel that Mr. Hosking had with the vicar of Ludgvan over some tithes. The last funeral took place in 1823. On one of the stones is inscribed, "It is virtue alone that consecrates this ground," and "Custom is the idol of fools."
- The Penzance promenade is built on part of it. In my childhood it was said to be one of the resorts of "Spring-heeled Jack," of whom I then lived in mortal dread.