Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
p. iv p. v
Before the commencement of the present century, the district of West Penwith, to which the legends in this volume for the most part belong, was, from its almost insular position, one of the most secluded and unknown parts of England. The estuary of Hayle (by which it is bounded on the east) and the Mount's-bay approaching to within three miles of each other, sever it in some measure from the rest of the county, with which, some three score years ago, from the badness of roads and scarcity of wheel-conveyances, it had but little communication, either commercially or otherwise. Then persons, living west of Penzance, were regarded as great travellers if they had "crossed over Hayle," which, at that time, was a dangerous undertaking, on account of its shifting quicksands; and people living further east were looked on as foreigners by the west-country folks. Indeed, few persons, except those born before Buonaparte filled the country with dread of an invasion, can form an adequate idea of the singular seclusion in which the inhabitants of West Penwith existed.
And even this small district comprises two very dissimilar regions, the inhabitants of which are also distinguished by peculiar traits of character. Bordering on the northern shore, barren moor-lands and rock-strewn hills, topped with granite cairns, mark a tract rich in tin and copper, but, except in some few places, unproductive on the surface, and almost worthless for the purposes of agriculture. These wild moors and hills were, for the most part, inhabited by a class of old-fashioned tinners, happily not yet extinct, who, as is usual with the industrious miners of Cornwall, varied their ordinary underground labour by breaking-up and clearing of stone small patches of the heathy moorland or furze-covered hills. * Many hundreds of acres have thus been brought under cultivation by men of this stamp, who,
notwithstanding their want of education (few indeed learned to read even), were often found to be very intelligent, and to possess a good store of mother-wit, sharpened by their hazardous under-ground occupations, and by a communication and exchange of ideas, facilitated by their working in company.
This primitive race of the hills knew next to nothing of any occurrences beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and being, like all the Celtic race, of a loquacious turn and sociable disposition, their chief resource for passing the eventide, and other times of rest, was the relation of traditional stories or, as they say "drolling away the time" in public-house or chimney-corner; many old legends have thus been handed down and kept alive. No doubt the adventures in these wild tales are often embellished by the droll-teller's fanciful invention. From the dwellers in the lonely hamlets of the northern parishes have been obtained all the giant-stories and many weird legends belonging to this wild district; which, for the most part, are very unlike the more cheerful drolls told by folks living on the warm rich land of the southern coast. An old tinner of Lelant (one of the comfortable class who worked best part of his time "to bal and farmed a few acres out of core") has often related to me the long giant-story with which the volume begins. It generally took him three of four winter's evenings to get through with the droll, because he would enter into very minute details, and indulge himself in glowing descriptions of the tin and other treasures found in the giant's castle; taking care, at the same time, to give the spoken parts literally as he had heard them from his ancestors.
About a century and half, or two centuries, ago, a comparatively refined and opulent class dwelt on the lands of West Penwith, on which the earliest vegetables are now raised for the London markets. The ancestors of many families of note (now removed to other parts) then resided in various old mansions, west of Penzance, the remains of which are now in a ruinous condition and occupied as farmhouses. Many legends associated with these forsaken seats have been told me by aged relatives of my own, and
other old people of the West County. My thanks are due to several others, however, who take an interest in our ancient traditions, for the more recent communication of old stories, some of which will be found in the present volume.
In most cases the stories are given as related by the droll-tellers, except where our local dialect might be unintelligible to the general reader, or when (as is frequently the case) they indulge in a plainness of speech which the fastidious might regard as indelicate. On this account it became necessary to curtail and alter some stories in order to make them presentable.
It may be well to observe that, in a great number of our legends, the Devil is a prominent personage; yet the mythical demon or "bucca-boo" of our drolls has but few of the malicious traits of his Satanic Majesty, and the Old One is generally described as being outwitted in the end. When the same old tale occurs in different forms, care has been taken to preserve the most interesting version.
A word as to the arrangement. It was first intended to commence with the most ancient legends and to place the giant-stories, fairy tales, &c., in separate sections: but, this being found inconvenient, the plan adopted is to give the stories as they relate to various localities, proceeding from Hayle westward. Particular stories, however, and other subjects deemed of special interest, may be easily found by a reference to the Index.
In a very few years these interesting traditions would have been lost, unless they had been preserved in some such form as the present volume is intended to supply; since modern customs, and the diffusion of the local news of the day, are superseding, in even the most remote districts, the semi-professional droll-tellers who were formerly welcomed at all firesides, fairs, and feasts for their recitals of the old ballads and stories in which they abounded, and of which their audience rarely tired.
As some of the stories, related since the prospectus was issued belong to Places beyond West Penwith, it was thought proper to alter the title to that of "Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall."
I beg to tender my most sincere thanks to subscribers for having countenanced and encouraged my efforts; and should the public receive this collection with favour, a second series, containing other legends of the West, will be published.
St. Clare Street,
January 1st, 1870.
v:* The work of Mr. Thomas, Mine Surveyor, informs us that from 2,000 to 3,000 tons of stone was frequently cleared from a single acre.