Cornish Folklore;piskies etc


Life in the Parish

J. Mosman, OPC

Trepanning Tribune – “All the news that’s fit to print”

December 19, 2005

or thereabouts. Special Edition

[Ed. Note – since this topic was so well-received, we have decided to include all our correspondent’s notes, making this rather lengthy.]


Mr. Ernest Tregagle gave a highly educational talk on “Piskies, Giants, and Other Fairy folk; the Truth about their Gentle and Generous Natures, etc.” at the Uncommon Commons last night, which was very well attended by a highly respectable audience. The grounds were beautifully decorated with bowers of blossoms gaily draped from one tree branch to another, with lovely bunches of berries and mistletoe at each terminus as a seasonal touch. Our congratulations must be extended to Mrs. Eleanor Eva and the committee for arranging such a lovely display on such short notice. As the lecture was given at 12pm midnight, the audience could have been a bit sleepy, but Mr. Tregagle’s lively presentation kept them quite awake. Accompanied by various charts and tables, ably handled by 2 piskie attendants who declined giving their names for publication, [and who were] dressed most elegantly for this special occasion in camellia petals & leaves, Mr. Tregagle traced the evolution of the stories told regarding Fairy folk, starting with the earliest Celtic traditions and reaching forward to current day.


Mr. Tregagle first pointed out there were many representatives of the Fairy folk resident in Cornwall, and these should not be confused; knackers, giants, spriggans, and piskies in particular are each quite unique. Knackers reside in mines, far deep in the earth, and when so moved they give human-kind clues as to the location of the richest lodes of ore. Human eyewitnesses have testified they are about the size of a sixpenny doll, and look “quite like a hearty old tinner” Often they just tap on mine walls, giving cheer to the human miners and indicating a direction they should like explored. Many a lucky person has followed this indication, and has been rewarded with finding a quite rich lode. As any good Cornish miner is aware, they only appear near the most productive mines. If treated with respect and courtesy, knackers can be quite helpful. However, they are known for their capricious behaviour, which has been sometimes interpreted as being spiteful. One recorded case was that of Tom Trevorrow, who worked in Ballowal Mine, near St. Just. Close by the mine lies Ballowal “burrow”, one of the most famous prehistoric burial-places in all of Cornwall. Old “Santusters” used to declare not only the mine itself, but the barrows, crofts, and cleves all around were swarming with knackers and spriggans. They suggested to Trevorrow that he leave the crousts of his pasties to propitiate these old-time workers. However, Trevorrow was a scoffer, and brusquely refused such nonsense. One night, when he was in a place quite by himself, he heard ever so many squeaking voices chant: “Tom Trevorrow! Tom Trevorrow! Leave some of thy fuggan for Bucca, or bad luck to thee tomorrow!” Trevorrow’s reply was to shout “Go to blazes, you &%[email protected]! or I’ll scat your brains out!” Thereupon the voices changed to a threatening note: “Tommy Trevorrow! Tommy Trevorrow! We’ll send thee bad luck tomorrow, Thou old curmudgeon to eat all thy fuggan, and not leave a didgan for Bucca.” [fuggan = cake, didgan=a bit or crumb] The next day, upon his return to the mine, Trevorrow found there had been a ‘cave-in’, and all his tools and the ore he’d extracted, upon which he had been relying for the whole of his two months’ pay, had been buried. Bad luck so dogged his footsteps that eventually he was forced to leave the mine, and seek his fortune elsewhere. Now, who was the rude individual? Who chose not to respect tradition? Who was the first to swear, and threaten? Not the knackers. They merely replied in kind, and no Sensible thinking person would conclude they had acted spitefully.


Spriggans, or sprites, are the ‘wildest’ of the group, and are loathe to come into contact with humankind. While some have faithfully stood watch over their beloved springs and streams, many have been affected by human removal of their special provinces; these sprites have moved on to Guatemala, and other exotic locales where they can enjoy the butterflies of the rain forest and other such delights. Still, if one watches closely during a winter storm, one can often see sprites body surfing in on the highest crested waves, their hair wildly flowing backward toward the sea. Spriggans are closely tied to the ancient Celtic baptisteries later adopted by the Christian Church as ‘holy wells’. As an aid to the audience, a chart was provided regarding these Wells, which we have printed in another section of this paper.


Mr. Tregagle here took the opportunity to point out that as Methodism took hold in Cornwall, and more and more humans took The Pledge, stories of piskies luring folks on their way home late at night from the pub into various pits and abandoned mines diminished. And not a moment too soon! as many a piskie was badly treated in this manner. It was but one method by which unflattering reputations were gained – another was the fact that places most reputed to be haunted were most often frequented by smugglers. At times, these miscreants had been known to wear coats buttoned over their heads, so to appear headless in case of inadvertent observation; many a pious folk, seeing these headless beings, swore never to walk down the same lane, or look out that same window at night ever again – in fear of great evil. And the poor fairy folk once again suffered unjust damage to their reputations.


Piskies, or “the small folk” as humankind call them, are delightful creatures [at this moment in the lecture, Mr. Tregagle’s assistants turned toward the audience, looking very pleased, and very gracefully bowed toward the audience] who are playful, but very kind. The earliest human-piskie intercourse as described in Cornish records occurred in 1647 & 1694, when the famous Anne Jefferies (b. 1626, St. Teath) was discussed in a series of letters. As everyone knows, Anne Jefferies spent much time in her childhood with “a small sort of airy people” who fed her for over six months. In adulthood, she cured many a person, especially of the Falling sickness and broken bones, not taking any reward for doing so, and offered prophecies that “generally came true”. When visited by the Magistrates, she – a completely illiterate person – readily opened the Bible to the text “Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God”. When asked how she found this scripture, she stated the little people had shown her. The Magistrates were “fearful” to meddle with her, for she told them to their faces they could not hurt her. Anne never “ate anything but ‘Alemans’ (almonds) and the like”, which were brought to her by “small people clad in greene and sometimes by birds”, for the small people warned her the steward of the Earl of Radnor had procured a warrant against her, and that she should be kept there a long time without victuals. Due to her unwavering and oft-stated belief that the King should “enjoy his own, and be revenged upon his enemies” etc. & etc., she was taken to reside with the current Mayor of Bodmin for her own protection, where she suffered a long imprisonment due to her political beliefs, but she always had the company of the “small people clad in greene” who fed and comforted her during the lonely days and nights.


Piskies are well-known for their musick, and lively dancing in rings and circles, as well as their kindness to human children. They also occasionally enjoy a good-spirited prank .In 1687, Agnes Martin of St. Agnes, disappeared from her home. Several years after her disappearance, she was discovered at a County Faire, quite hale and healthy, and reunited with her family. She firmly believed she had been taken by the small people to watch over their children, and maintained that belief unto her death, although nay-sayers held she was taken by gypsies. She refused to give many details of her life, other than to say her stay was “wonderful”, in the belief the small people would desert her if she said more. Mr. Tregagle stated he had personally spoken to an elderly pisky (although who is to say he truly was, as it’s very hard to discern age in a pisky) who had known Agnes Martin; he had been among the children she was brought in to watch! He testified she had done a marvelous job, and had been “ever so jolly”. Since then, stories of pisky/human interaction have abounded; the ones emphasizing the good nature of the piskies are, naturally, true, but the other, less flattering stories may be doubtful, perhaps invented by someone not enjoying a prank.


Amongst the population of Cornwall in the olden days, regard was shown Fairy folk in many ways, such as leaving the croust of a pasty, speaking respectfully of “the folke”, etc. Many Cornish women would never leave their cottages without first making provision for the small people. For instance, the brandis should be turned down on the baking-iron to prevent the small people sitting on the former and burning themselves. {brandis = trivet). The fire hook and prong should be crossed to keep off witches. The hearthstone must be neatly swept, and a basin of spring water left before it, so that the fairies might enter and wash their children under pleasant conditions if they feel so inclined. In modern days, these traditions aren’t so well kept, and many a piskie has been downhearted at being unable to bathe their children in the old way. [However, the author’s grandmother always made sure to cross the fire hook and prong at the hearth, as does the author, who was unaware of the reason behind the custom.]


Mr. Tregagle took this moment to refresh himself with a sip of elderberry fluff, which he affirmed did him “ever so much good”. He stated that as he was quite an old giant, his joints sometimes ached “a fury”, and elderberry fluff was just the stuff to set things aright. Mr. Tregagle then let a large tear fall from his eye, which ran down his rather extensive nose and dripped into the empty cup. He gazed up toward the audience and said it was such a sad thing to contemplate the stories that had been circulated against him by vengeful humans. He admitted to great disappointment, so much so that he had long ago taken shelter in one of the abandoned tin mines, and remained there until he heard about a group of humans who actually Loved Cornwall, and it’s Traditions. He started lurking on their Lists, and after quite some time was reassured that what he’d heard was true; he therefore decided to come forward with his little talk. He affirmed the basic truth of the story told about him racing across the St. Austell moors one dark and stormy night; his hat was blown off, and as he ran to catch it, he threw down his staff. Due to the darkness – and, according to Mr. Tregagle, the uneven terrain and vicious rain that was blowing sidewards – he was unable to find the hat. Then he found he’d run so far, he didn’t know where to locate his walking stick! Despite what we had been lead to believe, he was Not Drunken, nor off to steal a child; he had been on a mission to see his old Granny, who was took bad with the fever. He later heard a group of soldiers, camping on the moor and unhappy that it had rained for weeks, actually pushed his hat off the cliff in an effort to rid themselves of “the curse”. Of course, it was broken to bits, and the weather didn’t change one whit; there had been no curse, just a stalled weather front. Tregagle’s staff was moved from its original position, but does still exist near St. Austell, where a modern housing development was built nearby. ** By that time, he’d taken refuge in an abandoned mine, and didn’t care any longer. Mr. Tregagle maintained that being by nature solitary folk, not many giant babies have been born, and as humankind developed astounding weapons to use on one-another, giants were not as free to move around as before, as they didn’t want to be caught up in a dispute. This has, naturally, reduced the giant population greatly. Giants are by nature amiable, wishing not to cause disruption or damage, and that too has caused difficulty. It’s hard to walk from border to border without flattening a house or two, when you wear size 77 ½ shoes! Giants are sometimes seen in modern day, but are generally mistaken for something else. Mr. Tregagle offered the opinion that perhaps the Loch Ness monster was actually his cousin Shamus, scuba diving in the lake. He had no actual knowledge, mind, but it seemed reasonable, given that Shamus enjoyed a dip once in a while, and a giants’ scuba gear is quite large. After another sip of elderberry fluff, Mr. Tregagle addressed the concerns of parents; and solemnly assured them no giant has Ever stolen a child, nor will they. Firstly, human children are much too noisy. They throw fits continually! Also, they are difficult for a giant to feed. Lastly, they’re so easily misplaced by being so tiny. Perhaps a giant has, at some time in the past, picked one up – but only if it were by itself out-of-doors, which no well-cared for child ever was. If one were to be picked up, giants have certain guidelines they must follow, which include the option of “taking the infant to a known place of refuge”. Humans, if your child is missing, check there first. Perhaps some kindly giant has left off your missing child!


Mr. Tregagle then concluded his remarks, and opened the floor to questions. In reply to the first, he responded that yes, he was a vegetarian, as were most giants. He then described his dwelling, the neighbourhood of which he declined to identify. He also agreed that as he was so huge, his temper could also be seen as huge – and he might do great damage when in a temper, which is one reason why he mainly avoided human contact. However, he had found this encounter with humanity quite delightful. The Chairman, Mr. Polwhele, then stepped forward, and offered the thanks of the people of Trepanning for the excellent lecture, and called for a willingly-given three-times-three. The highly respectable audience was then regaled with piskie music, provided by the 2 assistants playing flute-like instruments, and many were seen to tap a toe. This reporter has to say that he had a most enjoyable hour following, and appreciated the dancing capabilities of the lady in the dark purple pants quite fully. Mr. Tregagle did amiably agree to remain at Trepanning for a fort-night, and also agreed to share his elderberry fluff, which all the company found quite refreshing. A good time was had by all, and the company reluctantly adjourned about two am to happily return to their places of abode.


--- finis ---


by Julia Mosman, in imitation of reports of the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser circa 1838, and various books about Cornish legends; Agnes Martin & Anne Jeffries are historical figures, and the customs regarding women & the hearth are true. Trepanning was the site of the 2005 Cornish List Christmas party; it is a lovely creation located 'online'.


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