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Cornish Folklore, Myths & Legends

Author: Alex Boag-Wyllie, Marketing Executive
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In a Land of Myth and a Time of Magic...

The rugged landscape of Cornwall stretches into the Atlantic Ocean from southwest England. Steeped in legend, Cornwall has long been a source of inspiration for storytellers, and the rich tapestry of Cornish folklore has captivated the imagination of generations.

From mysterious mermaids to lost lands and King Arthur, enter the enchanting world of Cornish folklore. The myths of Cornwall loom like the giants that walked this ancient landscape. Read on to learn more about the age-old tales of Cornish folklore.

Discover:

The Mermaid of Padstow

The Doom Bar

On the rugged north coast of Cornwall, at the mouth of the River Camel, sits Padstow. Here, a tragic tale has been passed down through the ages. While many versions of the story of the mermaid of Padstow exist, they all share a common theme.

One day, a local sailor was out on the coast with a gun. Whether out of love, rage or a simple mistake, the sailor shot a beautiful woman. She was a mermaid and, with her dying breath, she cursed the harbour of Padstow. A great storm raged and, when the skies cleared, a large sandbar lay where once there had been a deep route for ships. The tempest had scattered the wrecks of ships and bodies of their crews across the sandbar, earning it the name Doom Bar.

Today, the Camel Estuary and Padstow Harbour remain accessible only to small boats. This legend is perhaps best remembered in Doom Bar, an amber ale by local brewery, Sharp’s.

The Mermaid of Zennor

Immerse yourself in another tale of a mermaid from along the north coast of Cornwall. She was a mysterious blonde woman who occasionally graced the village church in Zennor with her presence. Appearing over many years, the woman never seemed to age. One fateful day, her visit coincided with that of a local man, said to have the best voice in the parish. Smitten, the man followed this mysterious woman from the church. They both disappeared.

The Story Continues

Many years later, a ship dropped its anchor in the bay nearby. Suddenly, a blonde mermaid appeared from the water below. She begged the captain to raise his anchor as it blocked the underwater door to her home. Here, her husband and children were trapped. The crew obliged and, as they sailed away, they soon realised this was the same mysterious woman and the local man who had disappeared all those years ago. To this day, a carved bench in the St Senara’s Church in Zennor depicts the mermaid, a poignant reminder of the legend.

Find out more about Zennor in our blog on the prettiest villages in Cornwall.

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The Bucca

Tales of the bucca echo along the Cornish coastline. The bucca are similar to the púca, the shape-shifting troublemakers of Irish folklore. In their hobgoblin form, the bucca come ashore during stormy weather with dark brown skin and seaweed hair. One story tells of a human prince cursed by a witch to take the merman form of the bucca. Local fishermen traditionally leave them fish on the beach, an offering in exchange for the buccas’ favour and help.

There are good and evil forms of the bucca. The good is Bucca Gwidden, and the darker version is Bucca Dhu or Bucca Boo. Since the 20th century, this malevolent form has become a bogeyman for Cornish children.

Knockers

Wheal Prosper Tin Mine

Deep beneath the earth in Cornwall’s mines are mystical creatures known as knockers. These playful spirits are similar in appearance to Irish leprechauns, although knockers only stand around 2 ft/60 cm tall. Cornish folklore suggests they are the spirits of those who have died in the mines. They wear miniature versions of miners’ clothes and are notorious for causing mischief for miners.

Legend has it that the knockers get their name from the sound a mine wall makes before it collapses. Stories differ about whether this sound is a warning or the creatures trying to bring the wall down. Regardless, miners would leave offerings, such as the crusts of their pasties, to appease the knockers. These mischievous beings are also the reason it is bad luck to whistle in a mine as they don’t like the sound.

Knockers & The Bucca

Although knockers and the bucca share many personality traits, they are separate creatures. Both require food offerings to appease their playful nature. However, the knockers’ mischievous antics are unique to the tin mines.

Find out more about mining in Cornwall in our blog.

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Piskies

Look for piskies across the Cornish moorland. They are especially prevalent around historical sites like stone circles and ancient Dolmans. A Cornish piskie is a childlike being that can be helpful or mischievous depending on how they are treated. Piskies appear similar to spriggans, and both tend to dwell in the same locations. Spriggans appear around ancient sites, in the form of a wizened old man. However, piskies will often help those who treat them with respect, while spriggans are generally mischievous and unpleasant, especially to those who have treated the fairy folk poorly.

Cornish piskies should also not be confused with other fairy folk. An identifying feature between Cornish piskies and fairies or pixies from elsewhere is that piskies do not have wings.

In Cornish folklore, Joan the Wad is the Queen of the Piskies. Legend has it that she possesses both good and evil traits. Some say that her light – wad is an old word for torch – guides weary travellers to safety. Yet others believe that she leads travellers off the path to their doom. These tales are the origin of ‘pixilated’ – not the be confused with ‘pixelated’ – meaning those lost in thought or whimsical.

The Giants of Cornish Folklore

In the captivating world of Cornish folklore, towering giants straddle the realms of reality and myth. Standing tall in their stories, giants leave an inedible mark on the landscape and our imaginations.

Cormoran the Giant

Cormoran

Among the most iconic of Cornwall’s giants was Cormoran. He lived with his wife, Cormelian, in the lush forest now under the sea’s embrace in Mount’s Bay. An interesting aside, the Cornish name for St Michael’s Mount is Karrek Loos yn Koos. This translates as ‘grey rock in the wood’, blending fact with fiction. A brutal giant who stole livestock, Cormoran became the first giant slain by the legendary Jack the Giant Killer. His stone heart can still be seen at low tide on the path to this historic island.

Other Giants

Other cruel giants include Blunderbore and his brother, Rebecks. They also resided around the Penwith region of Cornwall. Terrorising nobility and travellers, the brothers also fell to the might of Jack.

Frequently portrayed as bullies who meet grisly ends at the sword of Jack the Giant Killer, there are also kinder giants within the pages of Cornish folklore for those prepared to search. An example is the Giant of Carn Galva, in West Cornwall. This friendly giant enjoyed playing games with local humans. He also balanced large stones so that he could rock himself to sleep, like Logan Rock, between Treen and Porthcurno.

Jack the Giant Killer

Stepping out from the enchanting world of Cornish folklore is the tale of Jack the Giant Killer. Jack’s story is set amidst the fabled reign and mystical realm of King Arthur. A chapbook from the 18th century introduced Jack’s tale to the world. His daring exploits tell of a humble farmer’s son staring down giants with nothing but his wit, courage and strength. Jack’s journey is one of violence and victory, but his heroics eventually earned him a place looking after Arthur’s son. Not for the faint-hearted, Jack’s blood-soaked legend is woven within the myths of Cornwall.

Jan Tregeagle

The ghost of Jan Tregeagle haunts Cornish folklore as a ruthless and evil magistrate. Tales tell of Jan committing terrible crimes during his life in the 17th century. These include murdering his wife and children, and even selling his soul to the Devil. Subsequently, Jan repented at the end of his life.

However, a court summoned him back from beyond the grave to testify on the defence in a court case. Trapped in the mortal realm with the Devil chasing his soul, the court ordered Jan to perform a series of impossible tasks until Judgement Day. These included emptying Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor with a limpet shell pierced with a hole.

Lyonesse

Could the Isles of Scilly be the origin of the legend of Lyonesse?

Between the rugged mainland and the golden Isles of Scilly supposedly lies Lyonesse, the mythical land of Cornwall. According to Cornish folklore, a great wave swallowed this lost land in a devastating event. This disaster only left one man to tell the tale. Stories vary but, whatever happened, the man escaped the flood on his white horse. In their flight, the horse lost a shoe. Today, some Cornish family crests bear the symbol of a white horse or three horseshoes. This supposedly marks their descent from this lone survivor.

The Lyonesse Project

The Lyonesse Project: A Study of the Coastal and Marine Environment of the Isles of Scilly ran from 2009 to 2013. The project delved into the marine environment of the Isles of Scilly to uncover the secrets of this ancient landscape. The project revealed that around 7000 BC, the Isles of Scilly were one large island. However, 3000 years later, a sudden rise in water levels separated the islands. Another rise around 2500-2000 BC formed the distinct islands we know today. Unfortunately, the project did not find conclusive evidence of Lyonesse. Yet, the findings offer intriguing connections to the origins of this fabled land.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor

Hidden in the shadows of Cornish folklore prowls the legendary Beast of Bodmin Moor. A more recent tale than many others in this blog, the Beast appears as a phantom creature, often described as a wild cat. It preys on livestock, occasionally surprising unsuspecting hikers.

First reported in 1978, the frequency of sightings resulted in the Ministry of Agriculture stepping in in the 1990s. However, their investigation of Bodmin Moor found no conclusive evidence for (or against!) the Beast. Some theories suggest that the Beast may have been an exotic pet released into the wild. Others believe it could be a surviving member of an extinct species. Counter-arguments that there is not enough large wildlife on the moor to support such a creature add to the mystery. Today, reports continue to come in of this large, shadowy cat.

Other Myths on Bodmin Moor

The Beast is not the only legend of Bodmin Moor. St Cuby’s Well is allegedly cursed, and Dozmary Pool may have been the site of King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake. Haunted stories certainly identify this pool as the site Jan Tregeagle was doomed to empty with a broken limpet shell. These are just a few of the many myths that surround the moor.

King Arthur

Gallos by Rubin Eynon. The statue represents the legends of Tintagel Castle.

There are few figures as iconic as King Arthur within Cornish folklore. A legendary king and knight, today immortalised in every art form, his Knights of the Round Table remain an iconic standard for chivalry. Yet the stories are murky about whether Arthur was a real king or a fictional hero. Perched on the north coast of Cornwall, Tintagel played a crucial role in shaping Arthurian mythos.

In 1138, a clerk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, published The Historia Regum Britanniae, translated as ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. This popular text launched the tale of King Arthur. It tells of Arthur’s conception at Tintagel Castle. As time went on, the story evolved, with Tintagel Castle featuring as Arthur’s birthplace, and his castle as monarch.

Arthurian Legend Today

As the popularity of Arthurian tales grew in the 19th century, the village of Trevena was renamed Tintagel to capitalize on the tourism. Today, the whole village embraces Arthur’s magical legend. However, one of the most visible tributes is King Arthur’s Great Halls. Constructed in the 1930s, these buildings emulate a medieval banqueting hall fit for the king.

Today, a plethora of films, books, tv shows, music and more all add to the legend of King Arthur. From blockbusters like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) to Disney classics such as The Sword in the Stone (1963), the silver screen showcases Arthurian legend for any age of viewer. On the smaller screen, BBC’s Merlin (2008-12) captured the imaginations of a generation. The list of works based on the world of Arthur seems to be endless, and his legend is recognised across the world.

Find out more about Tintagel Castle and the legend of King Arthur.

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Meet the Author: Alex Boag-Wyllie

Born in the Scottish Highlands, I was lucky enough to spend my early childhood playing on beautiful, sweeping beaches and learning to ski (or, more often, fall over). My father’s job kept us on the move though, and I was soon just as at home amidst the rolling Wiltshire downs, the dramatic Yorkshire Dales and the expansive East Anglian coast. I’ve had almost 40 bedrooms to date across the UK, so I’m your gal if you need a good cafe recommendation (almost) anywhere in the country; if I haven’t been there yet, you can be sure it’s on my trip list…

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