Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 1, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
A Midsummer Night's Legend
Little more than two centuries ago, great part of Sancreed parish belonged to the ancient family of Bosence, when an old gentleman called Uter Bosence lived on the estate of the same name, in that parish.
The old man was a widower, with an only son, also called Uter, who was the pride and joy of his father's heart. Young Uter Bosence was known, far and near, as the champion of the wrestling-ring, the most expert hurler, and noted horseman in the West. His favourite pastime was to tame the wild colts that in these times (when but a small proportion of the land was enclosed and cultivated) had the run of hills and moors, until they were many years old. Young Uter is said to have had some secret method of taming them, so that in a few days he could make the wildest colt perfectly docile without the use of whip or spur; at the same time they would become so fond of him as to follow him the same as his dogs.
The young Uter had long been engaged to his cousin Pee Tregeer, of St. Just, who passed a great part of her time in Bosence, to superintend the housekeeping at harvest and feasten-tides. She was now, on this Midsummer's eve, staying there to make the few arrangements required for her wedding, which was intended to take place in a few weeks. Her brother William Tregeer, and Uter, had been as much attached to each other from childhood as brothers ought to be. They were so near a match in wrestling, boxing, and all other manly exercises, that they often bruised each other black and blue by practising—not for the mastery, but that each might train the other to be the best man in his parish. On the afternoon of this Midsummer's eve there was a wrestling-match at St. Just. All the standards having been made long before, the prizes were to be won that afternoon. The two young men were at the wrestling, each one being the champion standard for his own parish. The best prize, a pair of silver spurs, was won by Uter after a stout contest with his comrade, Will Tregeer. Lanyon, of Tregonebris, gained the second prize—a gold-lace hat; and another Sancreed man won the pair of embroidered gloves, the usual third prize. The St. Just men were much chagrined to have all their prizes carried off to Sancreed. It was the usual
custom then, whenever large parties of young men went from one parish to take part in the games held in another, to take their silver ball with them, that they might practice hurling on the road. The Sancreed boys had their ball with them then, as they wanted to keep their hand in against the next day, when a match was to be played between Sancreed and Buryan. Tregeer and the St. Just men proposed that the victorious wrestlers should try the game of hurling with them, that evening, from St. Just to Sancreed church-town. The St. Just men were then noted for being the most expert hurlers in the west country, and had carried off the balls from all the parishes round, and from Sancreed, more than once. The wrestling being over many hours before dark, the challenge was accepted, so that instead of passing the evening together, as usual, in the parish in which the games were held, the ball was thrown up at St. Just Cross. With a swift run, and smart contest over hills and moors, the St. Just men kept the ball amongst them best part of the way, until they arrived at Trannack downs, when the Sancreed party, getting hold of the ball, sent it to Uter Bosence, who, with the rest of his party, being well acquainted with the ground, took right across the country, over the rocks and cairns on the downs, through the bogs, and old stream-works on the moors, straight for church-town, and bore their ball in triumph into the trough in the church porch long before the St. Just men got out of the bogs in the moors. Sancreed men were proud enough of their double victory, and treated the men of St. Just, and all-comers, to the best in the "Bird-in-hand," if that was the sign of the ancient hostel in those days. It was not felt to be any disgrace to the losers to be beaten on the run, with which they were quite unacquainted, once in a while; so the carouse was kept up with high glee and good fellowship until near midnight, when all left the public-house for their homes, that they might have a little rest before going to Buryan, where the principal games of the west were to be held on Midsummer day. Uter, and the young men belonging to Botrea, Durval, Trannack, and other places near, with the St. Just men, reached the end of Botrea land all together. Uter, wishing to speak with Will Tregeer, the two young men went on together as far as the stile on the church-road leading from Botrea townplace into the field. Here they sat awhile, and the rest of their Sancreed comrades went on before to the different villages in the side of the hill.
The weather was so calm, and the air so clear, that the young men could distinctly hear the wild music to which the dance was kept up around the bonfires on the Beacon and Caer Brane hills. After the two friends had said their say, and agreed where to meet the next day, they lingered together some time looking at the young men and maidens, with hands firmly locked, dancing in a ring around the blazing fires, or pulling each other for good luck over the embers, that they might extinguish the fires by treading them out, without breaking their chain, or rather ring. Then they vainly tried to count the fires to be seen blazing on all the hills far
away. The young men, waiting at the end of Botrea land, called to Will Tregeer to come along or they would go home without him. Uter said he could get on very well alone: he wasn't at all tipsy, only a little lightheaded, as he had only drunk a few mugs of beer to cool himself after the run. Over a while he had taken two or three horns of brandy for fear of a chill. He wouldn't have Will Tregeer go any farther with him, as he had only a few fields to cross to bring him home. Soon after they wished good night, Uter remembered that the old gentleman, his father (who liked to keep up the ancient customs), had agreed to go with Pee Tregeer, and the rest of the young folks, to the bonfire on Trannack hill, which Uter could still see blazing away in all its glory, with the young people dancing around it. He had also promised to come to Trannack hill for them on his way home from St. Just, not expecting then that a hurling-match would bring him back before night. His father and Pee Tregeer might still be waiting for him on the hill. That he might be there as soon as possible, he took his course across Botrea and Bosence fields, straight for the hill. He knew every inch of the ground, and could find his way, as he thought, by night as well as by day.
When he got into the field on Bosence, called Park-an-chapel, a cloud of fog rising from the moors (so thick that one could scarcely see a yard before him), entirely surrounded Uter or buried him, we may say; yet, although he couldn't see the bonfires then, he could hear the singing plainer than ever. He steered his course for the eastern side of the field, as near as he could guess toward the place of an opening in the hedge through which he intended to pass into the next field. He soon came to the fence, but found no opening; searched forth and back; wandered round and round, without avail; then he tried to get over what appeared to be a low place in the hedge; but the more he climbed the higher the hedge seemed to rise above him. He tried ever so many places, but could never reach the top of the fence, and, every time he gave over, his ears rung with such tormenting, mocking laughter as nothing but a piskey ever made. He was very anxious to reach the hill, and above all to get out of this field, as it had a bad name, and was shunned by most people after nightfall. The ugliest of sprights and spriggans, with other strange apparitions, such as unearthly lights, were often seen hovering around the ruins of the old chapel, or oratory, which stood in this field, and departing thence in all directions. These ruins were so overgrown with brambles and thorns that there was but little of the building to be seen. Uter had often laughed at the stories of those who had been piskey-led; in fact on the subject of spriggans, piskeys, small people, and all the rest of the fairy tribe, he was no better than an unbelieving heathen, and would often blaspheme and abuse the merry and innocent small-people, who are now seldom seen on account of the increased pride and wickedness of the world. Uter had turned round and round so often that he neither knew what course he was steering nor in what part of the field he stood,
until he found himself among the thickets surrounding the ruins; even here he heard the same teasing, tormenting, laughter proceeding from inside the chapel. Then he took it into his head that some one in flesh and blood was following him about in the mist. He soon got out of temper, and threatened to let whoever, or whatever, was dogging his footsteps, feel the weight of his boot as soon as he could lay hands on him, and send him to the place of which one need not mention the direction as well-dressed respectable people such as we are have no business there. Knowing now where he was, and that it would be an easy matter for him to get on the church-road and be home in a few minutes, he sat himself down to rest and draw breath, on a long stone, lying close by the doorway of the ruined chapel.
Uter felt so very stiff and weary that he would as soon pass the night where he sat as go a step farther. He thought to have a comfortable smoke at least (tobacco was just come into fashion then, and the use of the fragrant weed regarded as a mark of distinction by the young beaux). He took his tinder-box from his pocket, struck a light for his pipe, which was no sooner in full blast then he heard all sorts of strange noises in the old building. Looking towards the entrance, he saw it filled with the most frightful sprights and spriggans one ever beheld—all sorts of unnaturally-shaped bodies were topped with heads like those of adders. The ugly things kept hissing, grinning, throwing out their forked tongues, and spitting fire at him all the time; others were making a horrible dance, and cutting all sorts of fantastic capers on the roofless walls of the chapel, and hanging down from the gable close over his head. hissing like serpents all the time. Uter rose to get away from the ugly sight as quickly as he could, and was no sooner on his forkle-end then he saw, standing close before him, a being (whether beast, sprite, or demon he knew not) much like a black buck-goat, with horns and beard more than a yard in length; but a goat of such a size, with such flaming balls of eyes and such a length of tail behind, was never seen on hills or moors before. The ugly thing, standing on its hind legs, danced round, trying all the time to get a firm grip of Uter with the hairy paws, in the place of hoofs, on its fore legs. Uter did not like dancing with such a partner, yet he could hardly hinder his feet from keeping time to the music ringing from the surrounding hills. He was rather scared, but not afraid, for he feared nothing in this world, give him fair play and no favour. He tried to keep off the thing (which must have been the piskey) by striking its long hairy paws with his black thornstick. He had no sooner hit the thing than the cudgel was snatched from his hand, his heels tripped up, and he was laid flat on his back; then he was sent rolling down the hill faster and faster, till he went like a stone bowled over cliff, tossed over the hedge at the bottom of the field like a bundle of rags, then pushed through the brambles and furze on the moor, or pitched over the bogs and stream-works on the piskey's horns; then whirled away like dust before the wind. When
he fell down he was pitched up again, and not allowed a moment's rest from rolling or running until he passed the high-road in Botrea bottom, and was driven by piskey or demon smash against a high rock at the foot of the Beacon hill, where he was found quite insensible the next day.
Uter's father and affianced bride remained late on Trannack hill, as the old gentleman liked to join in the ancient pastimes that united all classes of the people, as well as in those manly exercises for which the men of the west have in former times been famed. Besides, he might have believed (as many did not long ago) that dancing round the fire in an unbroken chain-ring with, hands firmly locked, the prescribed number of times, leaping through the flame and treading out the fire, insured good luck for the year, and was the surest preservative against the spells of witchcraft, blighting of an evil eye, and many other calamities to which we are subject from the powers of darkness.
They were not surprised because Uter did not return, as he often stayed with Will Tregeer over night, when anything in the way of games was going on in St. Just. In the morning, when Tregeer came to Bosence, not finding Uter there, he said nothing to alarm the old man, but went to the neighbouring villages to enquire after his comrade, when all the good folks, young and old, dispersed to make search over hill and dale, moor and downs.
Uter was soon found lying, apparently dead, at the foot of the rock—the flesh almost cut from his ribs with the rowels of the prize spurs, which he wore as a trophy, suspended by their straps to the leathern girdle that, according to the fashion of the time, he wore round the waist; the spikes of the rowels, full an inch long, had pierced his flesh to the bone in his rolling over nearly half a mile. The silver buttons, large as crown-pieces, beautifully engraved and embossed, were all torn from his coat. They say that these buttons were sought for, and continued to be found on Uter's and the piskey's route, many years after. No wonder that the old folks, even the giants, were fond of the game of bob, when the buttons were so well worth the labour of throwing the quoits after them. Uter was soon taken home. When he came to himself he told how he was served out by the piskey. Some say, he was never so strong a man after the piskey encounter as before. However, he soon got well enough to be wedded, and seldom went to the games to prove his strength after he took home his wife, but paid more attention to his farm and family; so perhaps the rolling did him good, on the whole.
Such is the story just as it was told me a few years ago by William Bosence, of Sancreed. The name of Uter is still kept up in the Bosence family. I did not venture to suggest (what was in my mind all the time) that, perhaps, the frightful vision was merely the production of a drunken dream, well knowing that to show the least scepticism respecting the cherished belief of the old folks was a sure way to be regarded by them as
something worse then a heretic. Besides, there is little reason in pretending to be so over wise as to scorn their harmless fancies, when, little more than a century ago, no one doubted that these phantoms often appeared, and tales of possession and witchcraft were circulated as articles of faith. Then the most learned and most religious men were not exempt from this weakness.
There are still some remains of the old chapel of Bosence to be seen, which are well worthy of a visit. The site of the ruins is about half-a-mile north-west of Sancreed church. Those who wish to see some of the most interesting views of the Mount's-bay and neighbourhood should not fail to climb the Beacon hill and Caer Brane, as few landscapes are so beautiful as the view (obtained from about half-way up the Beacon hill) of the bay and the diversified scenery of its shores. From the summit, the contrast is remarkable of the wild and romantic hills and cairns on the north and west, with the prospect of soft rural beauty in the opposite direction. Should one feel inclined to extend the ramble a mile farther towards the west, to drink from the crystal fount of St. Uny's holy well, and explore the fogou (cavern) and circular hut near it, the pilgrimage would ensure a good night's rest and pleasant dreams.