In olden days, Cornish country people believed that they shared their lovely land with another, more elusive population of piskies. The Cornish piskey, of course, is legend, but much less is generally known about those other faery people, the spriggans, knockers and Small People, whose activities, like his, were closely interwoven with those of the ordinary mortal folk among whom they lived.
Not so many years ago, one could ask any really old soul whose days had been spent in Cornwall and get a sure description of any of these little creatures and what they got up to. First there were the prankish, teasing, laughing, heel-kicking piskies who, some declare, came with the saints from Ireland, while others say that they are the souls of virtuous pagans from times yet deeper in the past. There are those, too, who believe the piskies were once the gods of pre-Christian Cornwall, giant-like in stature, but who, in the face of the new religion-some say they were scattered with holy water-shrank in size, an unfortunate fate which will continue until they vanish entirely from the earth. Whatever their origins, the piskies - or Piskey as he is called, for he usually works alone - are as good a people as they are mischievous, helping the aged and infirm in their household tasks, threshing the corn on a moonlit night, plaiting the pony's mane for stirrups and riding it wildly the night through. And, of course, many people of old were piskey-led when benighted, losing all sense of time and place and wandering helplessly in what appeared to be a strange landscape, until they dropped down into an exhausted sleep.
What were these little old men, the
piskies, like to look upon? To begin with they were all identical, and
each no higher than, say a mouse. They wore wigs of grey lichen beneath
their red caps. Eyes as bright and unwinking as a robin's stared out of
each small, wrinkled face. They were dressed in dapper fashion - white
weskits, green stockings, brown coats and breeches, while their brightly
gleaming shoes were buckled with diamond dew- drops. Always lively, when
they chattered they filled the air with a sound like the droning of bees.
They were accustomed with riding about on snails.
If these friendly little creatures
were the good spirits of old Cornwall, then the spriggans were the bad.
Hordes of them, hissing, spitting and grinning maliciously, protected
every cliff top or granite cairn where treasure might be buried, for they
were appointed to protect it. In the same way, they haunted the hundreds
of ancient burial mounds, as well as the giant pre- historic tombs known
as dolmens, which are found in Cornwall, particularly in the far west.
Beneath these, it was thought, treasure lay beside the remains of pagan
peoples who walked the Cornish moorland thousands of years ago. The
spriggans were ugly, and much feared, wizened and shrivelled old men with
large heads like those of children upon their puny little shoulders. They
were able to raise sudden whirlwinds and storms to terrify the lonely
traveller. They could summon rain and hail to lay the corn. Worse, they
stole children from their cradles. So too, it might be said, did the
piskies but whereas the latter chose neglected babes which their parents
soon found again, well cared for and cherished, the spriggans selected
bonny babes, leaving in their stead their own large-headed, wizened and
mysterious of the elfin creatures of Cornwall were the knockers or
knackers of the mines. These were, it is said, the spirits of old miners,
perhaps those Jewish miners who worked underground in Cornwall a long time
past. Those who have seen these sprites are few, but their descriptions of
them tally; of ugly, thin limbed creatures no higher than the smallest
human dwarf, with large hooked noses - perhaps indeed they were the ghosts
of Jews - slit mouths from ear to ear, and a great liking for making
They were not above, for instance, crossing their eyes and thumbing their noses when they met you, or bending over to grimace at you between their spindly legs. There were also those who affirmed that the knockers were not the spirits of Jewish miners but of those who had crucified Christ. In support of this theory, they were said to be heard sweetly singing carols in the mines, not from choice but under compulsion, on Christmas Day, Easter Day, All Saint's Day and the Jewish Sabbath. Others believed the knockers were the souls of those whose deeds in this world allowed them entry neither into hell nor heaven - an interesting conjecture considering their living and working in the Cornish mines.
Supposedly, these tiny creatures were once upon a time much larger but were destined to shrink so much in size that each eventually became an ant, or murrain, and finally disappear, a fate in store for them since the birth of Christ. Knockers, of course, were a product of the imagination of a past race of Cornish miners, people of a naturally mystical and superstitious nature, which was enhanced by their working in the darkness of narrow, rock-hewn depths where the only light was shed by glimmering candles. In such eerie surroundings, with the pitchy silence broken only by the dripping of water, the faint tapings of other men working in distant levels elsewhere in the mine, or an occasional clatter of a falling stone, it is perhaps not surprising that the most sceptical of Cornish miners came to believe in these underground spirits. It was well known that the sound of these little men, whose activity with picks and shovels, borers and barrows, was familiar to every underground worker, were full of fun amongst themselves when unobserved, but much soberer in behaviour when spied upon.
Generally speaking, the latter was not wise. Knockers were to be treated with respect, for although of a friendly disposition on the whole, they could be malicious towards any miner who failed, for example, to leave a portion of his underground meal - a piece of pasty, maybe - for one of their number to enjoy. Similarly, they were not to be sworn or shouted at and, indeed, the miner who did so was a fool, for the knockers worked only profitable ground, and would make themselves known only to those whom they favoured. Continuing bad luck might even dog those who were particularly disrespectful.
There were others in Cornwall who connected the name of these "underground piskies" with the "knocking" or "knacking" of a mine, that is, its closing or abandonment. Some popular beliefs had it that the appearance of knockers in a mine presaged its closing or that their arrival was otherwise an ill omen. It is said that in the hundreds of Cornwall's "knackt bals", or abandoned mines, that they live there still, keeping everlasting watch, awaiting the day when they can, as of old, guide miners towards the wealthy lodes which they themselves are aware of.
In mines abroad, it is interesting to note, similar spirits were to be found. Small elf-like beings haunted the lead and silver mines of the Hartz Mountains in Germany, for example, and their behaviour and characteristics were very similar to the knockers of the Cornish mines. Again the Cardiganshire mines had their knockers, little men already at work in the new mines before the men even found the ore for which they were searching, little men who worked while the miners worked, stopped when the miners stopped - as might an echo.
The most faery-like of Cornwall's elfin folk were undoubtedly the Small People, gentle, harmless, always beautiful. Like Piskey, they would come into the homes of the sick, the old and the poor, bringing wild flowers and entertaining with songs, lively dancing or light hearted pranks. More usually however, they were seen by some lucky person while holding their fairs and markets in woodland dells, in faery gardens filled with perfume and music, perhaps among the sea-pinks that found hold along the cliff ledges, or in the shelter of moorland cairns. Unfortunately, such sights were a rare privilege for human eyes, and those that trespassed on faery ground immediately became one of their number.
Descriptions of the Small People vary but they are unanimous in depicting a vivacious, graceful and slender folk, barely knee high. Invariably they were fleet of foot, although not averse to riding a hare when in a particular hurry. Always they were elegantly and richly dressed, in lace, satin or velvet, with jewels of silver, diamonds and gold. The ladies are described as crinoline, with curled and powdered hair piled high beneath tall and pointed hats. Their men folk were sometimes dressed as soldiers or huntsmen but the majority wore pale blue jerkins and green breeches, with elegant tricornes trimmed with lace and silver bells, upon their heads. Like their ladies, they had large, dark, luminous eyes but whereas the former had pale and delicate complexions, the faces of the men were dark- skinned.
Times have changed in Cornwall, for better or worse. Few who live in the county today have cause to be out and about in the countryside alone whenever or wherever her elfin people may be abroad. Even lesser numbers work underground in search of rich ores the knockers were so expert in finding. In many ways the little people of Cornwall therefore have their haunts to themselves more than ever before, rarely disturbed by a gatherer of samphire or gull's eggs on the cliff ledges, by a lone traveller on a dark moorland track after "day-down", or by a pare of miners working at the end of a level. The spread of education, of course, has caused most people to be sceptical even about their existence but in Cornwall, where belief in such things dies hard, such outright scepticism is less noticeable. And the fact remains that, just because you don't believe in these enchanting creatures, they don't cease to exist as a result.
In the Land's End, about a mile south of St. Buryan, the coast road passes by two farms, Selena and Burnewhall, or Baranhual as it used to be. They lie between the road and the cliffs, in a part of Cornwall which once upon a time was a desolate place of marsh and wild undergrowth, of quaking bog and granite outcrops. In this wilderness, one dark night about two centuries ago, William Noy of Buryan became lost when on his way to Baranhual farm. After three days and nights of fruitless search by his friends, his horse was found and shortly afterwards, William himself.
He lay fast asleep in the shelter of a tumbledown building buried beneath a massive and almost impenetrable thicket of thorns. Awakened, he showed no sense of time or place, although recognising his rescuers and asking plenty of questions as to the whys and wherefores of his plight. Dazed, and as stiff as a stake, he was lifted to his horse and taken home, where, in the passage of time, he was able to reconstruct the strange events of the night he left Buryan for Baranhaul. His great mistake, he then saw, was to have forced his unwilling horse to take a short cut across Selena Moor for, very soon, although he decided to give the animal its head, both he and his mount were quite lost. Undoubtedly they were piskey-led, as William later came to realise. By and by they found themselves in a forest, apparently dark and deserted, and quite unknown to them. Quite suddenly William became aware of a myriad candles glimmering through the trees and the sound of music. At this, the horse showed every sign of terror and, being anxious to go on to ask for help, he was obliged to tether the animal and proceed alone.
William made his way wonderingly through an orchard and came upon a meadow in a clearing in the forest, where there was also an old house. Upon the mounting block before the door stood a girl dressed in white, playing a fiddle. But it was not she who claimed his attention. Upon the forest green hundreds of small people whirled and gyrated at giddy speed to the music she made, while as many more sat at rows of miniature tables, feasting and drinking. So inviting was the scene that William made a move to join the dancers but at once the girl in white threw him a warning glance and, finding another to play the music, drew him quickly into the moonlit orchard. He and she were almost of a height and at once he saw that the girl who looked at him directly was none other than his sweetheart Grace Hutchens of Selena, who had died three years ago. Overjoyed, he made a move to kiss her.
"No, no! My dearest William, you must not touch me, nor the fruit in this orchard, nor any flower or blade of grass, for all this is enchanted. A plum from one of these trees was my own undoing three years ago....This is how it came about. I was looking for one of our goats lost upon Selena Moor at the edge of dusk. Hearing your voice call to the dogs not far away, I struck over the moor to reach you, my beloved William, but I became confused and lost, buried in bracken that was head high, and surrounded by bogs and streams. At last, very tired, I came upon this orchard. Beyond lay a garden filled with roses and the sound of music, surrounded by trees. I know now that I was piskey-led, for once in the garden I could find no way out."
Grace went on to explain how she had eaten a plum, the sweetness of which turned bitter in her mouth and she swooned. On awakening ,she found herself surrounded by hundreds of Small People, rejoicing that they now had someone to care for them, as well as to tend their numerous changelings. "In fact", added Grace, "that is what I am, in a way, because during my trance they stole me - as you see me now - leaving behind a changeling body which you and my friends saw buried in Buryan churchyard. The baby changelings are reared on milk from nanny goats lured into the garden by Small People disguised as billy goats. Their own children are very few and much treasured because the Small People are themselves very old, thousands of years old. And of course they are not Christians, because when they were in human form it was long before the days of Christ. Instead they worship the stars."
William suddenly felt he wanted to get away from this rather frightening spot and take Grace with him. He remembered that a garment turned inside out would break a spell of this kind so, quick as a flash, he did exactly that with his glove and flung it into the crowd of Small People. At once everything changed, the house becoming a ruin, the garden a wilderness of moor-withey and water, the orchard a bramble thicket. The Small People vanished from sight and with them his beloved Grace. Felled by a mysterious blow, William fell asleep on the very spot where he was found by his rescuers. From that day on, he pined slowly away, searching upon the moor ceaselessly for Grace until at last he, too, died and was buried alongside her in Buryan churchyard. That is, unless he also had entered faeryland as a changeling.