The Ultimate Guide to Cornish Folklore

May 13th, 2020

Cornwall is renowned for its folklore, with an endless number of myths, legends and tales associated with the magical stretches of countryside and sea throughout the county. We take a look at some of the most popular of these folktales:

 

Mermaid of Padstow

While there are many references to mermaids throughout Cornish folklore, one particular tale relating to mermaids is that of the Doom Bar, a sandbar at the mouth of an estuary of the River Camel on the North Coast of Cornwall.

 

It is said that, upon being shot by a Cornish sailor, a mermaid set a dying curse on the harbour, forming the sandbar. There are several variations on the details of this tale, but many involve the mermaid and the sailor falling in love, and at the end of their relationship (in one version she refuses a proposal, and in another she tries to lure him under the sea), he shoots her.

 

Her curse on the harbour stated that it would become unusable, desolate and unsafe, and in doing so destroyed many boats and formed the sandbar.

 

Bucca

Living under the sea isn’t a life only limited to the ‘maids in Cornwall, with it said that sea spirit mermen came to shore to inhabit coastal communities during stormy weather.

 

The Tale of the Sea Bucca describes the being as having the dark brown skin of a conger eel, with a mound of seaweed hair. As legend suggests, he was once a human prince who got cursed by a witch. He helped local fishermen by driving fish towards their net, and in return, the fishermen left fish on the beach to placate him. Throughout the 19th century, these offerings were particularly common in Newlyn and Mousehole.

 

The Bucca is also thought of as having two forms, good and evil; Bucca Widn (White Bucca) and Bucca Dhu (Black Bucca). Now known as Bucca Boo, the evil version of the spirit has been used by parents as a ‘bogeyman’ to make children behave better!

 

Mermaid of Zennor

Another mermaid tale is that of the mermaid of Zennor, a woman who enchanted the parish with her incredible singing voice when she attended the service at St. Senara’s Church. She returned to Zennor infrequently over many years, but never appeared to age.

 

One day she returned and gained an interest in a young man named Mathey Trewella, who had the best singing voice in the parish. He followed her home, and the two disappeared and were not seen in Zennor again.

 

She was believed to be a mermaid after a ship cast its anchor a mile away from the village, and a mermaid requested they raise it again as it was blocking her door, leaving her unable to reach her children. Upon hearing of this, the villagers concluded that it must be the mysterious woman and Mathey Trewella. The story is commemorated in a 15th century carved bench depicting a mermaid.

 

Knocker

The knocker can be seen as a sort of Cornish equivalent of a leprechaun, as they are said to be around two feet tall. They live underground and are spotted wearing tiny miner’s outfits. Here they play pranks and get up to mischief, stealing miner’s tools and food.

 

The name ‘knocker’ comes from the sound a mine wall makes before it caves in, so it was believed that the noise was either a warning that the mine would collapse, or that they were malevolent spirits trying to bring the mine down.

 

Those who believe the knocker was giving a warning often thought that they were the helpful spirits of those who had previously died in tin mines. To appease their mischevious behaviour or to give thanks for the warnings, food offerings, such as the crust of a pasty, were typically left out for the knocker.

 

Piskies

Piskies are, as the name may suggest, the Cornish version of a pixie. They are thought to be located in the moorland areas of Cornwall, and around ancient sites. One particular myth regarding the piskies is that of Joan the Wad, who is Queen of the Piskies.

 

There are two interpretations of the character; firstly that she is a will-o’-the-wisp type being, who lures travellers off their path, but others consider her to be good, saying that she uses her Wad (a torch) to light the way to safety and good luck.

 

King Arthur

Early legends see links between King Arthur and Cornwall, with the belief that his birthplace was in Tintagel, at the court of King Mark of Cornwall, who was his uncle. The Arthurian legend connections continue with Dozmary Pool, on Bodmin Moor, which is believed by some to be the lake in which Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake!

 

Giants

Tales of giants are very common in Cornish folklore, with the events of Jack the Giant Killer said to have taken place in Cornwall. Giants have been used to explain various dramatic landscaping features throughout the county, from the striking cliffs to the mysterious form of St Michael’s Mount.

 

Cormoran is one such giant, believed to have been responsible for creating the island of St Micahel’s Mount as a base from which to visit the mainland to steal cattle and sheep. Cormoran was stated as the first giant Jack slew.

 

The second giant killed by Jack is said to be Blunderbore, another of Cornwall’s legendary giants. Blunderbore, and his brother, Rebecks, were giants who kidnapped lords and ladies, aiming to eat the men and wed the women. After recognising Jack as the Giant Killer, he was abducted to be eaten, but Jack managed to make a noose and hang the two giants.

 

The Beast of Bodmin Moor

The Beast of Bodmin is considered to be a phantom wild cat, which has been reported to stalk the moorland, slaying livestock. After multiple sightings from the end of the 1970s, the alleged panther-like creature became known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

 

Many theories have been raised about the origins of this beast, including claims that these alien big cats have escaped from zoos or private collections. Reports of the beast were so widely covered that the Ministry of Agriculture even got involved, attempting to put a stop to the claims by stating that there was no evidence of such big cats loose in Britain!

 

If these tales don’t scare you away – or you want to investigate some of this magic yourself – why not take an excitingly magical trip on a self-catering holiday in Falmouth!