cornish folklore

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Finished my Cornish fairy tale project! Based on the story of the Mermaid of Zennor. This is my contribution to a collaborative project with Josh Oliver and Tashi Reeve - inspired by our time studying in Cornwall.

Carving of a mermaid in St Senara’s Church in Zennor, Cornwall. 

The story goes that a mermaid would sneak into the church wearing a beautiful dress to cover her tail so that she could hear the singing of a young man named Mathew Trewella. Mathew had a beautiful voice that rang out on the breeze down to the sea which is how the mermaid, whose name was Morveren, came to first hear him.

So entranced was she by his voice that she felt she simply must risk leaving the sea to get a glimpse of the voice’s owner. So for many weeks she would sit at the back of the church, silently, so as not to draw attention to herself, and would listen. She would always leave before the service came to an end so as not to miss high tide and end up stranded. 

One day, Mathew’s voice was so beautiful and strong that she let slip the tiniest of sighs. It caught Mathew’s attention and he turned to face her and fell in love instantly. 

Morveren panicked and tried to flee but became tangled in her dress. She was about to fall when Mathew caught her, bringing with him the attention of the other parishioners. Everyone could clearly see the mermaid’s tail now and Morveren was terrified. She told Mathew:

“I cannot stay. I am a sea creature, and must go back where I belong.”

To which he replied:

“Then I will go with ye. For with ye is where I belong.”

He lifted the mermaid up into his arms and ran with her down to the sea with the village in hot pursuit, yelling at him to stop. But he didn’t care. He kept running, wading out into the depths of the sea with his mermaid love, never to be seen again. 

It is said that his songs could still be hear though, as if guiding the fishermen. High and soft if the seas were calm and deep and low if the waves were too rough. 

Cornish Folklore: Jan Tregeagle

While staying in Cornwall I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit many places of local myth and legend.

One of the Cornwall’s more compelling legends stars an early 17th century magistrate named, Jan Tregeagle. A villainous man notorious for being cruel and wicked, abound with ghastly tales and terrible rumors.

It was said that he had murdered his late wife, that he had swindled an orphan out of his estate and that he had even made a pact with the Devil!

Shortly after his death, a dispute regarding an estate that Jan Tregeagle had obtained illegally through forged documents, was under trial. The defendant, knowing Jan Tregeagle couldn’t testify from the grave called out ‘If Tregeagle ever saw it, I wish to God he would come and declare it!’

Much to the courts astonishment, Jan Tregeagle materialized in the witness stand and admitted to his wrong doing. With justice being served the court felt compelled to keep Jan Tregeagle from the depths of hell and decided to set him an impossible task to keep his spirit occupied for eternity.

So the wretched Jan Tregeagle began his first task of draining, the thought-to-be bottomless, Dozmary Pool on Bodmin moor with a leaky limpet shell, under the ever watchful eyes of the Devil’s grotesque Hell-hounds, ready to drag him back to hell should he fail to complete the task.

Dozmary Pool

Many years after the court case, a huge storm blew across the moors and churned up the waters of Dozmary Pool into ginormous waves. Seeing this as an escape from his toil, Jan Tregeagle fled across the moors and the Hell-hounds took chase close behind him.

Coming across Roche Rock, Jan Tregeagle saw the small chapel perched on top and seeking christian refuge, crashed head first into the East window. His head went through the window, but his ghostly shoulders did not and there he hung, with head in the chapel and his body at the mercy of the Hell-hounds.

Roche Rock

His howls of agony woke the local priest and with help of 2 saints they took the spirit of Jan Tregeagle to Gwenvor Cove and set him the impossible task of weaving sand into rope, which when complete was to be carried to Carn Olva.

One frosty night Jan Tregeagle poured icy water onto the sand-rope, causing it to freeze solid and he delivered it to Carn Olva before taking off over the moors.

Jan Tregeagle’s freedom was short lived. Disturbed by his constant wailings, the people of Padstow called upon St Petrov for help. St Petrov bound Jan Tregeagle in giant chains and led him to Berepper where he was set yet another impossible task.

This time Jan Tregeagle was ordered to carry all the sand from Berepper beach, across Loe estuary and dump it in Porthleven, until there was only rock on Berepper beach. Again another fruitless task, as the tide would replenish all the sand.

One night as Jan Tregeagle made his way across the estuary, a demon tripped him over causing him to drop his sack of sand. The sand filled up the estuary, cutting Helston harbour from the sea, and formed what is now known as Loe Bar.

Loe Bar

Losing their precious harbour, the people and priest of Helston banished Jan Tregeagle to Land’s End, where he remains to this day, ever sweeping the sands of Porthcurno Cove into Mill Bay.

There are many variations to the story of Jan Tregeagle, so if you know of another one please post in the comments!

Bucca

It is a faerie in Cornish folklore that was believed to be a spirit that inhabited mines and coastal communities as a hobgoblin during storms.

It is uncertain whether Bucka can be regarded as one of the fairy tribe; old people, within my remembrance, spoke of a Bucka Gwidden and a Bucka Dhu - by the former they meant good spirit, and by the latter an evil one, now known as Bucka boo. I have been told, by persons of credit, that within the last forty years it was a usual practice with Newlyn and Mousehole fishermen to leave on the sand at night a portion of their catch for Bucka. Probably from this observance the common nickname of Newlyn Buckas was derived. An old rhyme says:
‘Penzance boys up in a tree,
Looking as wisht (i.e. haunted) as wisht can be;
Newlyn buckas as strong as oak,
Knocking them down at every poke.’

- Cornish folklorist William Bottrell, 1890

The Bucca is featured in two forms, Bucca Widn (White Bucca) and Bucca Dhu (Black Bucca). 

The Bucca is also associated with the wind, in Penzance it was customary to refer to storms that emanated from a south westerly direction, as “Bucca calling”, sailors and fishermen also believe that Bucca’s voice carried on the wind

During the 19th Century, there were reports of fishermen venerating Bucca with offerings ( this included food offerings, particularly of fish, given to Bucca on beaches).

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I found this really cool book at the bookstore today. It’s a collection of fairy tales, and folklore from Insular Celtic cultures. The stories are mostly of Gaelic origin coming from Scotland, and Ireland. But there’s also some stories of Brythonic origin coming from Wales, and one from Cornwall.

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Our Cornish Folktale zine is now available on etsy! ’A full colour A4 saddle stitched booklet (zine) with front and back cover, end papers, and a Cornish map to locate the stories. Contains 3 graphic short stories based on popular Cornish Folktales with the theme of ‘Sea.’ The stories combined total nine double paged spreads. The zine is a collaborative project featuring the work of Josh Oliver, Tashi Reeve and Briony May Smith.’ Take a look at the zine here!!

Beings

Muryans - (ants) named to reflect their size.

Knockers - live underground in mines and caverns. Usually short, stout, ugly and hairy or prematurely aged. Guide miners who share their ‘croust’ to valuable seams of tin or other precious metals by knocking on the wall, or setting up a violent pounding when mines are about to cave in.

Fairies - tiny webbed feet, appropriate to sea-defined location.

Pisgies - Cornish name for moths.

Places

Fairyland - an intense floral scent assails those who draw near a portal to Fairyland.

Clothing

Brown garments might be made from foliage or lichen by little brown men in Cornwall.

Source: The Ultimate Fairies Handbook - Susannah Marriott