Notes and Queries/Series 1/Volume 11/The Folk Lore of a Cornish Village (pp. 397–398)

Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11
The Folk Lore of a Cornish Village (pp. 397–398)

Next part: The Folk Lore of a Cornish Village (pp. 457–459). For other stories similar to Colman Grey, see The King of the Cats.


Having pleasingly occupied my leisure in getting together all that is noteworthy respecting the past history and present condition of the place of my birth, I have thought that those chapters which treat of its folk lore might find an appropriate place in "N. & Q.," if abridged, and modified to suit its pages. Though the papers in another shape were read some time since before a provincial antiquarian society, they have never been published.

The place, whose popular antiquities are here to be recorded, is situated on the eminently romantic coast of the south-eastern part of Cornwall. The bold-bluff hills resting by the sea-line on a margin of craggy transition slate, alike attractive to the artist, and interesting to the geologist, have here, seemingly, suffered some disruption, and in the fissure is dropped the village, its houses resting on ledges in the hills, or skirting the inlets of the sea which forms its harbour. The inland country, for some distance, is a rapid succession of well-cultivated hill and "coomb," for that can scarcely be called valley which is but the acute junction of the bases of opposite hills. The population is part seafaring, part agricultural, and in reference to education as well off as such people generally are. In this quiet corner lurk many remnants of faded creeds, and ancient usages which have vanished from districts more subject to mutation with the circumstances which gave rise to them, as the side eddies of a stream retain those sticks and straws which the current would have swept off to the ocean. I begin with an account of our fairy mythology.

Though the piskies, in spite of the prognostications of the poets, have outlived the "grete charite and prayers" of the limitour, and the changes in politics and religion which took place when "Elizabeth and later James came in," it is scarcely to be expected that they will withstand that great exorcist, steam, when it shall make its appearance among us, and there is the greater need that "all the fairies' evidence" should be entrusted to your safe keeping.

The belief in the little folk is far from dead, though the people of the present generation hold it by a slighter tenure than their forefathers did, and are aware that piskies are now fair objects of ridicule, whatever they formerly were. One old woman in particular, to whose recital of some of the following tales I have listened in mute attention, was a firm believer in them; and I remember her pettish reply, when a young friend of mine ventured to hint a doubt: "What! not believe in 'em, when my poor mother had been pinched black and blue by 'em." The argument was conclusive, for we could not then see its fallacy, though we have since learnt that the poor soul in question had not the kindest of husbands.

This creed has received so many additions and modifications at one time, and has suffered so many abstractions at another, that it is impossible to make any arrangement of our fairies into classes.

"The elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves"

are all now confounded under the generic name pisky. Some of the later interpolations are of a very obvious character, as will hereafter be pointed out. Our piskies are little beings standing midway between the purely spiritual, and the material, suffering a few at least of the ills incident to humanity. They have the power of making themselves seen, heard, and felt. They interest themselves in man's affairs, now doing him a good turn, and anon taking offence at a trifle, and leading him into all manner of mischief. The rude gratitude of the husbandman is construed into an insult, and the capricious sprites mislead him on the first opportunity, and laugh heartily at his misadventures. They are great enemies of sluttery, and great encouragers of good husbandry. When not singing and dancing, their chief nightly amusement is in riding the colts, and plaiting their manes, or tangling them with the seed-vessels of the burdock. Of a particular field in this neighbourhood it is reported that the farmer never puts his horses in it but he finds them in the morning in a state of great terror, panting, and covered with foam. Their form of government is monarchical, as frequent mention is made of the "king of the piskies." We have a few stories of pisky changelings, the only proof of whose parentage was, that "they didn't goodey" (thrive). It would seem that fairy children of some growth are occasionally entrusted to human care for a time, and recalled; and that mortals are now and then kidnapped, and carried off to fairy land; such, according to the nursery rhyme, was the end of Margery Daw:

"See-saw, Margery Daw
Sold her bed, and lay upon straw;
She sold her straw, and lay upon hay,
Piskies came and carri'd her away."

A disposition to laughter is a striking trait in their character. I have been able to gather little about the personalities of these creatures. My old friend before mentioned used to describe them as about the height of a span, clad in green, and having straw hats, or little red caps on their heads. Two only are known by name, and I have heard them addressed in the following rhyme:

"Jack o' the lantern! Joan the wad!
Who tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad."

I leave the stories of the piskysled, of which this neighbourhood can furnish several authentic instances, for the following ancient legends, all careful copies of oral traditions.

Colman Grey.—A farmer, who formerly lived on an estate in our vicinity, was returning one evening from a distant part of the farm, when, in crossing a particular field, he saw, to his surprise, sitting on a stone in the middle of it, a miserable-looking little creature, human in appearance, though diminutive in size, and apparently starving with cold and hunger. Pitying its condition, and perhaps aware that it was of elfish origin, and that good luck would amply repay him for his kind treatment of it, he took it home, placed it by the warm hearth on a stool, and fed it with nice milk. The poor bantling soon recovered from the lumpish and only half-sensible state in which it was found, and, though it never spoke, became very lively and playful. From the amusement which its strange tricks excited, it became a general favourite in the family, and the good folk really felt very sorry when their strange guest quitted them, which he did in a very unceremonious manner. After the lapse of three or four days, as the little fellow was gamboling about the farm kitchen, a shrill voice from the town-place; or farm-yard, was heard to call three times, "Colman Grey!" at which he sprung up, and gaining voice, cried, "Ho! ho! ho! my daddy is come," flew through the key-hole, and was never afterwards heard of.

A Voyage with the Piskies.—About a mile to the eastward of us is a pretty bay, on the shores of which may be seen the picturesque church of Talland, the hamlet of Portallow, with its scattered farm-houses, and the green on which the children assemble at their sports. In old time, a lad in the employ of a farmer who occupied one of the homesteads was sent to our village to procure some little household necessaries from the shop. Dark night had set in by the time he had reached Sand-hill; on his way home, when half way down the steep road, the boy heard some one say, "I'm for Portallow-green." "As you are going my way," thought he, "I may as well have your company;" and he waited for a repetition of the voice, intending to hail it. "I'm for Portallow-green," was repeated after a short interval. "I'm for Portallow-green," shouted the boy. Quick as thought he found himself on the green, surrounded by a throng of little laughing piskies. They were, however, scarcely settled before the cry was heard from several tiny voices, "I'm for Seaton-beach,"—a fine expanse of sand on the coast between this place and Plymouth, at the distance of seven miles. Whether he was charmed by his brief taste of pisky society, or taken with their pleasant mode of travelling, is not stated; but, instead of turning his pockets inside out, as many would have done; he immediately rejoined, "I'm for Seaton-beach." Off he was whisked, and in a moment found himself on Seaton-beach. After they had for a while "danced their ringlets to the whistling winds," the cry was changed to "I'm for the king of France's cellar," and, strange to say, he offered no objection even to so long a journey. "I'm for the king of France's cellar," shouted the adventurous youth as he dropped his parcel on the beach not far from the edge of the tide. Immediately he found himself in a spacious cellar, engaged with his mysterious companions in tasting the richest of wines. Then they passed through grand rooms fitted up with a splendour which quite dazzled the lad. In one apartment the tables were covered with fine plate and rich viands, as if in expectation of a feast. Though in the main an honest lad, he could not resist the temptation to take away with him some memorial of his travels, and he pocketed one of the rich silver goblets which stood on the table. After a very short stay the word was raised, "I'm for Seaton-beach," which being repeated by the boy, he was taken back as quickly as he went, and luckily reached the beach in time to save his parcel from the flowing tide. The next destination was Portallow-green, where the piskies left our wondering traveller, who reached home, delivered his parcel of groceries, and received a compliment from the good wife for his dispatch. "You'd say so, if you only know'd where I've been," said he; "I've been wi' the piskies to Seaton-beach, and I've been to the king o' France's house, and all in five minutes." The farmer stared and expressed an opinion that the boy was mazed. "I thought you'd say I was mazed, so I brort (brought) away this mug to show vor et," he replied, producing the goblet. The farmer and his family examined it, wondered at it, and finished by giving a full belief to the boy's strange story. The goblet is unfortunately not now to be produced for the satisfaction of those who may still doubt; but we are assured that it remained the property of the lad's family for generations after.

Thomas Q. Couch.