THE beginning of this collection of Popular Romances may I be truly said to date from my early childhood. I remember with what anticipations of pleasure, sixty-eight years since, I stitched together a few sheets of paper, and carefully pasted them into the back of an old book. This was preparatory to a visit I was about to make with my mother to Bodmin, about which town many strange stories were told, and my purpose was to record them. My memory retains dim shadows of a wild tale of Hender the Huntsman of Lanhydrock; of a narrative of streams having been poisoned by the monks; and of a legend of a devil who. played many strange pranks with the tower which stands on a neighbouring hill. I have, within the last year? endeavoured to recover those stories, but in vain. The living people appear to have forgotten them; my juvenile note-book has long been lost those traditions are, it is to be feared, gone for ever.
Fifteen years passed away--about six of them at school in Cornwall, and nine of them in close labour in London,--when failing health compelled my return to the West of England. Having spent about a month on the borders of Dartmoor, and wandered over that wild region of Granite Tors, gathering up its traditions,--ere yet Mrs Bray [a] had thought of doing so, -- I resolved on walking through Cornwall. Thirty-five years since, on a beautiful spring morning, I landed at Saltash, from the very ancient passage-boat which in those days conveyed men and women, carts-and cattle, across the river Tamar, where now that triumph of engineering, the Albert Bridge, gracefully spans its waters. Sending my box forward to Liskeard by a van, my wanderings commenced; my purpose being to visit each relic of Old Cornwall, and to gather up every existing tale of its ancient people. Ten months were delightfully spent in this way; and in that period a large number of the romances and superstitions which are published in these volumes were collected, with many more, which have been weeded out of the collection as worthless.
During the few weeks which were spent on the borders of Dart-moor, accidental circumstances placed me in the very centre of a circle who believed "there were giants on the earth in those days" to which the "old people" belonged, and who were convinced that to turn a coat-sleeve or a stocking prevented the piskies from misleading man or woman. I drank deeply from the stream of legendary lore which was at that time flowing, as from a well of living waters, over
"Devonia's dreary Alps;" [b]
and longed to renew my acquaintance with the wild tales of Cornwall, which had either terrified or amused me when a child.
My acquaintance with the fairies commenced at an early date. When a very boy, I have often been taken by a romantic young lady, who lives in my memory--
"So bright, so fair, so wild," [c]
to seek for the fairies on Lelant Towans. The maiden and the boy frequently sat for hours, entranced by the stories of an old woman, who lived in a cottage on the edge of the blown sandhills of that region. Thus were received my earliest lessons in fairy mythology.
From earthly youth accidental circumstances have led to my acquiring a taste for collecting the waifs floating upon the sea of time, which tell us something of those ancient peoples who have not a written history. The rude traditions of a race who appear to have possessed much native intelligence, minds wildly poetical, and great fertility of imagination, united with a deep feeling for the mysteries by which life is girdled, especially interested me. By the operation of causes beyond my control, I was removed from the groove of ordinary trade and placed in a position of considerable responsibility, in connection with one of the most useful institutions of Cornwall. [d] To nurse the germs of genius to maturity -- to seek those gems "of purest ray serene," which the dark, though not "unfathomed caves" of the Cornish mines might produce--and to reward every effort of human industry, was the purpose of this institution. As its secretary, my duties, as well as my inclination, took me often into the mining and agricultural districts, and brought me into intimate relation with the miners and the peasantry. The bold shores of St Just--the dark and rock-clad hills of Morva, Zennor, and St Ives--the barren regions of St Agnes--the sandy undulations of Perranzabuloe--the sterile tracts of Gwennap--the howling moorlands of St Austell and Bodmin--and, indeed, every district in which there was a mine, became familiar ground. Away from the towns, at a period when the means of communication were few, and those few tedious, primitive manners still lingered. Education was not then, as now, the fashion. Church-schools were few and far between; and Wesleyan Methodism--although it was infusing truth and goodness amongst the people
-- had not yet become conscious of the importance of properly educating the young. Always delighting in popular tales, no opportunity of hearing them was ever lost. Seated on a three-legged stool, or in a "timberen settle," near the blazing heath-fire on the hearth, have I elicited the old stories of which the people were beginning to be ashamed. Resting in a level, after the toil of climbing from the depths of a mine, in close companionship with the homely miner, his superstitions, and the tales which he had heard from his grandfather, have been confided to me.
To the present hour my duties take me constantly into the most remote districts of Cornwall and Devon, so that, as boy and as man, I have possessed the best possible opportunities for gathering up the folk-lore of a people, who, but a few generations since, had a language peculiarly their own, [e] a people, who, like all the Celts, cling with sincere affection to the memories of the past, and who even now regard with jealousy the introduction of any novelty, and accept improvements slowly.
The store of old-world stories which had been collected under the circumstances described would, perhaps, never have taken their present form, if Mr Thomas Wright had not shown the value of studying the Cyclopean Walls of the promontory beyond Penzance, popularly called "The Giant's Hedges,"--and if Mr J. O. Hailiwell had not told us that his "Rambles in Western Cornwall, by the Footsteps of the Giants," had led him to attempt "to remove part of a veil beyond which lies hid a curious episode in the history" of an ancient people.
In writing of the Giants, the fairies, and the spectral bands, I have often asked myself, How is it possible to account for the enduring life of those romantic tales, under the constantly-repressing influences of Christian teaching, and of the advances of civilisation? I have, to some extent, satisfied myself by such a reply as the following:--
Those things which make a strong impression on the mind of the child are rarely obliterated by the education through which he advances to maturity, and they exert their influences upon the man in advanced age. A tale of terror, related by an ignorant nurse, rivets the attention of an infant mind, and its details are engraven on the memory. The "bogle," or "bogie," with which the child is terrified into quiet by some thoughtless servant, remains a dim and unpleasant reality to shake the nerves of the philosopher. Things like these--seeing that existence is surrounded by clouds of mystery--become a Power which will, ever and anon through life, exert considerable control over our actions. As it is with the individual, so is it with the race to which that individual belongs. When our Celtic ancestors--in the very darkness of their ignorance--were taught, through their fears, a Pantheistic religion, and saw a god in every grand phenomenon:-- when not merely the atmospheric changes--the aspects of the starry sky--and the peculiarities apparent in the sun and moon, were watched with fearful anxiety; but when the trembling of a rock--the bubbling of a spring--the agitation of the forest leaves--and the flight of a bird, were charged with sentences of life and death;--then was moulded the Celtic mind, and the early impressions have never been entirely obliterated. "There were maddening orgies amongst the sacred rites of the Britons; orgies that, whilst they reminded one writer of the Bacchic dances, reminded another of the worship of Demeter." [f]
The Romans came and possessed the land. Even to the most westerly promontory, we have evidences of their rule, and indications of their superiority. The Saxons overcame the Damnoni--Athelstane drove the Cornish beyond the Tamar, and planted his banner omi the Scilly Islands;--and this Teutonic people diffused their religion and their customs over the West. [g] The Dane followed upon the Saxon, and he has left his earthworks, in evidence ot his possession, upon the Cornish hills.[h] The Norman conquerors eventually took possession of our island, and several of the existing families of Cornwall can speak of ancestors, who won their lands by favour of William, the Duke of Normandy.
Notwithstanding the influences which can be--not very obscurely--traced of Roman and Saxon, Danish and Norman civilisations, the Celtic superstitions lingered on:-- varied perhaps in their clothing, but in all essentials the same. Those wild dreams which swayed with irresistible force the skih-clad Briton of the Cornjsh hills, have not yet entirely lost their power where even the National and the British Schools are busy with the people, and Mechanics' Institutions are diffusing the truths of science. In the infancy of the race, terror was the moving power: in the maturity of the people, the dark shadow still sometimes rises, like a spectre, partially eclipsing the mild radiance of that Christian truth which shines upon the land.
It must not be forgotten that Cornwall has, until a recent period, maintained a somewhat singular isolation. England, with many persons, appeared to terminate on the shores of the river Tamar; and the wreckers of the coasts, and the miners of the hills, were equally regarded as indicating the semi-civilisation of this county. The difficulties of travelling in Cornwall were great. A clergyman writing in I788, says, "Our object was now to obtain a passage to Loo, without losing sight of the noble sea. Saddle-horses would render the difficulty of this route a pleasure, but with my carriage it is deemed impracticable." [i] Again, he tells us he was with his guide "five 'hours coming the eleven miles from Loo to Lostwithiel." Within my own memory, the ordinary means of travelling from Penzance to Plymouth was by a van called a "kitterine," and three days were 'occupied in the journey. There was in latter years, a mail coach, but the luxury of this conveyance was, even then, reserved for the wealthier classes. This difficulty of transit in a great measure explains the seclusion of the people up to a comparatively recent period; and to it we certainly owe the preservation of their primitive character, and most of the material to be found in these volumes. At one period indeed--but still earlier than the days of kitterines--we find the Cornish people, as a body, curiously, but completely, cut off by the river Tamar, from their countrymen. They were then informed of the active life of the world beyond them by the travelling historian only, who, as he also sought amuse the people, was called the "droll-teller."
The wandering minstrel, story-teller, and newsmonger appears to have been an old institution amongst the Cornish. Indeed Carew, in his "Survey of Cornwall," tells us that "the last of the Wideslades, whose estates were forfeited in the Rebellion, was called Sir Tristram. He led a walking life with his harp to gentlemen's houses." As the newspaper gradually found its way into this western county (the first one circulated in Cornwall being the Sherbourne Mercury), the occupation of this representative of the bards was taken away; but he has only become extinct within the last twenty years. These old men wandered constantly from house to house, finding a hearty welcome at all. Board and bed were readily found them, their only payment being a song or a droll (story). A gentleman to whom I am under many obligations writes:-- "The only wandering droll-teller whom I well remember was an old blind man, from the parish of Cury,--I think, as he used to tell many stories about the clever doings of the conjurer Luty of that place, and by that means procure the conjurer much practice from the people of the west. The old man had been a soldier in his youth, and had a small pension at the time he went over the country, accompanied by a boy and dog. He neither begged nor offered anything for sale, but was sure of a welcome to bed and board in every house he called at. He would seldom stop in the same house more than one night, not because he had exhausted his stories, or 'eaten his welcome,' but because it required all his time to visit his acquaintances once in the year. The old man was called Uncle Anthony James. (Uncle is a term of respect, which was very commonly applied to aged men by their juniors in Cornwall. Aunt (A'nt or Ann), as A'nt Sally or Ann' Jenney, was used in the same manner when addressing aged women.
"Uncle Anthony James used to arrive every year in St Leven parish about the end of August. Soon after he reached my father's house, he would stretch himself on the 'chimney-stool,' and sleep until supper-time. When the old man had finished his frugal meal of bread and milk, he would tune his fiddle and ask il 'missus' would like to hear him sing her favourite ballad. As soon as my dear mother told him how pleased she would be, Uncle Anthony would go through the 'woeful hunting'; (' Chevy Chase '), from beginning to end, accompanied by the boy and the fiddle. I expect the air was his own composition, as every verse was a different tune. The young were then gratified by hearing the 'streams' (strains) of 'Lovely Nancy,' divided in three parts. [j] I never saw this ballad published, yet it is a very romantic old thing, almost as long as 'Chevy Chase.' Another favourite was --
'Cold blows the wind to-day, sweetheart;
Cold are the drops of rain;
The first truelove that ever I had
In the green wood he was slain.
"Twas down in the garden-green, sweetheart,
Where you and I did walk;
The fairest flower that in the garden grew
Is withered to a stalk.
'The stalk will bear no leaves, sweetheart;
'l'he flowers will ne'er return;
And since my truelove is dead and gone,
What can I do but mourn?
'A twelvemonth and a day being gone,
The spirit rose and spoke--
"My body is clay cold, sweetheart;
My breath smells heavy arid strong;
And if you kiss my lily-white lips,
Your time will not be long."
"Then follows a stormy kind of duet between the maiden and her lover's ghost, who tries to persuade the maid to accompany him to the world of shadows. Uncle Anthony had also a knack of turning Scotch and Irish songs into Cornish ditties. 'Barbara Allan' he managed in the following way, and few knew but that he had composed the song:--
'In Cornwall I was born and bred,
In Cornwall was my dwelling;
And there I courted a pretty maid,
Her name was Ann Tremellan.
"The old man had the 'Babes in the Wood' for religious folks; but he avoided the ' Conorums,' as he called the Methodists. Yet the grand resource was the stories in which the supernatural bore great part. The story I told you about the ancestors of the conjurer Luty finding the mermaid, who gave them the power to break the spell of witchcraft, was one of this old man's tales, which he seemed to believe; and he regarded the conjurer with as much respect as the bard might the priest in olden time. I have a dim recollection of another old droll-teller, called Billy Frost, in St Just, who used to go round to the feasts in the neighbouring parishes, and be well entertained at the public-houses for the sake of his drolls."
In 1829 there still existed two of those droll-tellers, and from them were obtained a few of the stories here preserved.
These wanderers perpetuated the traditions of the old inhabitants; but they modified the stories, according to the activity of their fancy, to please their auditors. Not merely this: they without doubt introduced the names of people remembered by the villagers; and when they knew that a man had incurred the hatred of his neighbours, they made him do duty as a demon, or placed him in no very enviable relation with the devil. The legends of Tregeagle are illustrations of this. The man who has gained the notoriety of being attached to a tale as old as that of Orestes,--was a magistrate in Cornwall two hundred years since. The story of the murderess of Ludgvan and her lover is another, and a very modern, example of the process by which recent events are interwoven with very ancient superstitions.[k]
When the task of arranging my romances was commenced, I found that the traditions of Devonshire, as far east as Exeter--the tract of country which was known as " Danmonium," or even more recently as "Old Cornwall "-- had a striking family resemblance. My collection then received the name it bears, as embracing the district ordinarily known as the West of England. Although I have avoided repeating any of the traditions which are to be found in Mrs Bray's books; I have not altered my title; for the examples of folk-lore given in these volumes belong strictly to "Old Cornwall"
There are some points of peculiar interest connected with the Dartmoor traditions, indicating, as I conceive, a purely Saxon origin, deserving an attention which they have not yet received.
Childe's Tomb, in one of the dreariest portions of the moor, is a large cross of granite. This Childe, lord of the manor of Plymstock, was benighted on the moor in a snowstorm; he killed his horse, and got within its body for warmth, having first written in blood on a granite slab, near which he was found dead,--
"The first that finds and brings me to my grave,
The lands of Plymatock he shall have.'
The Benedictine monks of Tavistock are said to have found the body, and thus secured their right to the lands. This is without doubt an old Saxon legend, modified, as it has been handed down from age to age. Wistman's Wood, with its "hundred oaks one hundred yards high,"--a remnant of the old Dartmoor Forest,--is the very home of the Wish hounds, which hunt so fiercely over the Moor; and this Wistman appears to have been some demon creature, whose name alone remains. Mr Kemble gives Wusc, or Wisc, as one of the 'names of Odin. Here we have a similar name given to a strange wood in Devonshire, associated with wild superstitions; and whish, or whisht, is a common term for that weird sorrow which is associated with mysterious causes.
The stone circles, the stone avenues, and the rock tribunals,--of which Crockern Tor furnishes us with a fine example,--have yet tales to tell, which would well repay any labour that might be bestowed upon them. Ancient British rule gave way to Saxon power, and probably there was no tract in England less known to the Romans than Dartmoor. Thus we may expect to find the paganism of the Briton and the rude Christianity of the Saxon, shadowed out in the remaining legends of Dartmoor.
"Crocker, Conwys, and Coplestone,
When the Conqueror came, were found at home,"
is an old Devonshire rhyme. Those names are associated with many a moorland tradition, and indicate their Saxon origin.
It may appear strange to many, that having dealt with the superstitions of the Comish people, no mention has been made of the Divining Rod (the "Dowzing Rod," as it is called), and its use in the discovery of mineral lodes. This has been avoided, in the first place, because any mention of the practice of "dowzing" would lead to a discussion, for which this work is not intended; and, in the second place, because the use of the hazel-twig is not Cornish. The divining or dowzing rod is certainly not older than the German miners, who were brought over by Queen Elizabeth to teach the Cornish to work their mines, one of whom, called Schutz, was some time Warden of the Stannaries. 'Indeed, there is good reason for believing that the use of this wand is of more recent date, and, consequently, removed from the periods which are sought to be illustrated by this collection. The Divining Rod belongs no more to them than do the modern mysteries of twirling hats, of teaching tables to turn, and,--in their wooden way,--to talk.
The giant stories, prefaced with the often-told tale of Gogmagog, are of a character peculiarly their own. They do not appear to resemble the giants described in Mr Campbell's "Popular Tales of the West Highlands;" but it must be admitted that there are some indications of a common origin between those of Cromarty and of Cornwall, In Mr Dasent 's translation of Asbjornsen, and Moe's collection of "Norse Tales," the giant is not like our native friends. May we venture to believe that the Cornish giant is a true Celt, or may he not belong to an earlier race? He was fond of home, and we have no record of his ever having passed beyond the wilds of Dartmoor. The giants of Lancashire, of Cheshire, and Shropshire have a family likeness, and are, no doubt, closely related; but if they are cousins to the Cornish giants, they are cousins far removed. Dr Latham, in his "Ethnology of the British Islands," says "Tradition, too, indicates the existence of an old march or debatable land; for south of Rugby begins the scene of the deeds of Guy, Earl of Warwick, the slayer of the dun cow." The large bone which is shown in Redcliff Church, Bristol, is the last indication of the dun cow in the south. As this marvellous cow moved within prescribed limits, so was it with the giants of old Cornwall.
The fairies of Cornwall do not exhibit the same marked individuality. Allowing for the influences of physical conditions, they are clearly seen to be an offshoot from the common stock. Yet they have several local peculiarities, and possess names which are especially their own.
A few of the more popular legends of the Cornish saints are preserved, for the purpose of showing how enduringly the first impressions of power, as exhibited by the earliest missionaries, have remained fixed amongst the people; this being due mainly to the mental operation of associating mental power and physical strength with external things in the relations of cause and effect.
I cannot but consider myself fortunate in having collected these traditions thirty-five years ago. They could not be collected now. Mr J. O. Halliwell speaks of the difficulties he experienced in his endeavours to obtain a story. The common people think they will be laughed at if they tell their "ould drolls" to a stranger. Beyond this, many of the stories have died out with those who told them. In the autumn of 1862, being very desirous of getting every example of folk-lore which existed in the remote parishes of Zennor and Morva, I employed the late C. Taylor Stephens, "sometime rural postman from St Ives to Zennor," and the author of "The Chief of Barat-Anac," to hunt over the district. This he did with especial care, and the results of his labours are included in those pages. The postman and poet, although he spent many days and nights amidst the peasantry, failed to procure stories which had been told me, without hesitation, thirty years before.
When it was known that I was engaged in preparing for publication a work on the Traditions and Superstitions of Cornwall, numerous contributions, from much-valued friends, and from strangers interested in the preservation of these characteristics
of the West of England, were sent to me. From these some stories have been selected, but by far the larger number were modifications of stories already told. My obligations and thanks are, nevertheless, due to all; but there are two gentlemen to whom acknowledgments beyond this are necessary. These are Mr T. Q. Couch, who had already published examples of the folk-lore of Polperro and the neighbourhood, who has communicated several original stories, and Mr W. Botterell of Caerwyn, a native of St Leven, who possesses a greater knowledge of the household stories of the Land's-End district than any man living. Mr Botterell has, with much labour, supplied me with gleanings from his store, and his stories have been incorporated, in most cases, as he told them, Beyond this, it was satisfactory to have the correctness of many in my own collection confirmed by so reliable an authority. Without the assistance which this gentle-man has given, the West Cornwall stories would not have possessed the interest which will be found to belong to them.
One word on the subject of arrangement. In the First Series are arranged all such stories as appear to belong to the most ancient inhabitants of these islands. It is true that many of them, as they are now told, assume a medieval, or even a modern character. This is the natural result of the passage of a tradition or myth from one generation to another. The customs of the age in which the story is told are interpolated for the purpose of rendering them intelligible to the listeners, and thus they are constantly changing their exterior form. I am, however, disposed to believe that the spirit of all the romances included in this series shows them to have originated before the Christian era. The romances of the Second Series belong certainly to the historic period, though the dates of many of them are exceedingly problematical.
All the stories given in these volumes are the genuine household tales of the people. The only liberties which have been taken with them has been to alter them from the vernacular--in which they were for the most part related--into modern language. This applies to every romance but one. "The Mermaid's Vengeance" is a combination of three stories, having no doubt a common origin, but varying considerably in their details. They were too much alike to bear repeating; consequently it was thought best to throw them into one tale, which should preserve the peculiarities of all. This has been done with much care; and even the songs given preserve lines which are said by the fisherman--from whom the stories were obtained--to have been sung by the mermaids.
The traditions which are told, the superstitions which are spoken of, and the customs which are described in these volumes, may be regarded as true types of the ancient Cornish mythology, and genuine examples of the manners and customs of a people who will not readily deviate from the rules, taught them by their fathers.
Romances such as these have floated down to us as wreck upon the ocean. We gather a fragment here and a fragment there, And at length, it may be, we learn something of the name and character of the vessel when it was freighted with life, and obtain a shadowy image of the people who have perished.
Hoping to have been successful in saving a few interesting fragments of the unwritten records of a peculiar race, my labours are submitted to the world. The pleasure of recalling the past has fully repaid me for the labour of arranging the Traditions of Old Cornwall.
[a] Mrs Bray collected her "Traditions. Legends, and Superstitions of Devonthire" in 1835, and they were, published in 1838. This work proves to me that even at that time the old-world stories were perishing like the shadows on the mist before the rising sun. Many wild tales which I heard in 1829 appear to have been lost in 1835.
[b] Carrington's " Dartmoor."
[d] The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society.
[e]"The Cornish dialect, one of the three branches of the old British, bears greater aftinitv with the Breton or Armorican dialect of Brittany than it does with the Welsh, although it properly forms the link of onion between the Celtic dialect of France and that of the Cambrian hills. The nature of Its inflexions, both in letters and in tenses and cases, is, generally speaking, alike, allowance being made for dialectic variations arising from the nature of the country in which the dialect is spoken." The above quotation is from the remarkable book published by Bagster & Sons, "The Bible of every Land: A History of the Sacred Scriptures in every Language and Dialect into which Translations have been made." Preceding the above quotation, I find it stated that Dolly Pentreath, who died at Penzance in 1778, aged 102, was then said to be the only person in Cornwall who could speak the aboriginal idiom of that province of ancient Britain." This old woman died at Mousehole, and was buried in the churchyard of Paul. Over her grave Prince Lucien Bonaparte has recently placed an inscribed granite obelisk. Polwbele and some others have doubted the statement made by Dames Barrington, that Dolly was the last person who could speak Cornish. As they contend, many other men and women may, a hundred years since, have known the tongue, but no writer has produced good evidence to show that any person habitually spoke the language, which Barrington informs us was the case wiih Dolly Pentreath.
[g] "Athelstane (937) handled them yet more extremely, for he drove them Out of Excester, where, till then, they bore equal sway with the Saxons, and left them only the narrow angle on the west of Tamar river for their inheritance, which bath ever since beene their fatall bound."--Carew, p. 96
[h] "And divers round holds on the tops of hill; some single, some double, and treble trenched, which are termed Castellan, Denis or Danis is, as raysed by the Danes when they were destyned to become our scourge."--Carew, p. 85.
[i] A Tour to the West of England in 1788. By the Rev. S. Shaw, MA., London, 1789.
[j] Carew, in his "Survey of Cornwall," makes especial mention of "three men's songs,' as being peculiar to this county.
[k] I find in Campbell's "Popular Tales of the West Highlands" particular mention niade of numerous historical events which have taken the forms of ancient legends. "There is popular history of events which really happened within the last five centuries."