West Penwith: Cornish myths and legends

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall. Credit: travellinglight / Alamy

West Penwith at Cornwall’s southwestern tip is a little land apart, with a landscape of craggy cliffs and windswept moors that swirl with Cornish myths and legends

Words by Elizabeth Dale

Cornish myths and legends in Penwith

A few times a year, at particularly low spring tides, the remains of a prehistoric forest emerge from the sea at Mount’s Bay in Penwith, the farthest tip of Cornwall. These sunken tree trunks date from a time around 4000 years ago when sea levels were much lower than they are today and the island of St Michael’s Mount was just a rocky outcrop surrounded by woodland.

St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. This iconic rocky island is crowned by a medieval church and castle.

The Cornish name for the Mount, ‘Carrek Los yn Cos’ meaning ‘grey rock in the woods’, is a vivid etymological reminder of that forgotten age; an age that some believe saw not only this forest submerged, but also Lyonesse, the ancient kingdom of Arthurian legend, disappear beneath the waves just off Land’s End.

In Cornwall as a whole, but in Penwith in particular, ‘history’ can be a heady mix of fact and folktale, but this intoxicating witch’s brew makes exploring this little land apart all the more exciting.

The modern name for St Michael’s Mount comes from the legend that the Archangel Michael was spotted on the island by some fishermen in 495 AD. A religious community was founded there, and in the 13th century a number of miracles were recorded on the Mount. The tidal island was an important pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages, with hundreds of the faithful making their way across the cobbled causeway, as many still do today to visit the castle with its ancient interior and beautiful terraced gardens.

But there were other stories about the Mount that have long been regarded by locals as an equally important part of its history. As legend has it, the rocky island was once the home of the giant Cormoran, who built the mount when it was still distant from the sea, by piling up rocks from the surrounding hills. Cormoran was eventually slain by a wily local lad called Jack and buried on the island where, it is said, you can still hear his giant heart beating beneath the stones.

The colourful Gurnard’s Head pub near the village of Zennor. Credit: Nathaniel Noir / Alamy

Penwith hills

Giants are a common feature of Penwith’s craggy hilltops (or so local folktales would have you believe). They are usually held responsible for balancing impossibly heavy boulders or terrorising the locals by flinging rocks at each other, thus creating impressive geological features. A huge round natural boulder lying beneath Trencrom Hill, itself the site of an Iron Age hillfort, is known as Bowl Rock because it was supposedly thrown by the outcrop’s resident giant during a game with a neighbouring colossus.

Lanyon Quoit, the remains of a Bronze Age chambered tomb, was once known as the Giant’s Quoit, because depending on which legend you believe, either a giant’s bones were found buried beneath it, or it was built by one of these oversized titans as his dining table.

Penwith is said to have more prehistoric remains per square mile than anywhere else on mainland Britain. The wild moors are littered with standing stones, quoits (the Cornish word for dolmen), barrows, cairns, stone circles, hut circles and Iron Age villages such as Chysauster and Carn Euny. Mythical characters and magical deeds are frequently used to explain the origins of these mysterious ancient monuments.

Boscawen-ûn stone circle. Credit: travellinglight / Alamy

Boscawen-ûn stone circle

According to local tradition, stone circles such as the Merry Maidens are in fact young women turned to stone for the sin of dancing on a Sunday. This same story is told of Boscawen-ûn stone circle, which was also known by the Cornish name ‘Dons Men’ meaning ‘dancing stones’, and Nine Maidens stone circle at Boskednan. There are also standing stones called The Pipers and The Blind Fiddler, which were thought to be petrified musicians. In Penwith a rock is never just a rock.

Ding Dong Mine

Alongside these prehistoric relics the countryside is dotted with the enigmatic ruins of Cornwall’s industrial past. Engine houses and mine stacks perched dramatically on cliff edges or isolated on the scrubby moorland stand testament to an industry that shaped this region socially and culturally for generations. One such ruin, Ding Dong Mine, is visible for miles in all directions. High on a hill above Madron the narrow finger of its chimney makes a dark silhouette on the horizon pointing skyward. The mine, close to Boskednan stone circle, is said to get its name from the bells of Madron church, rung to signal the end of the miners’ shift.

Porthgwarra beach. Credit: Matt Jessop

In the mid-19th century the average life expectancy of a Cornish miner was just 35 years and, given the dangers of their job, it is hardly surprising that they were a very superstitious bunch. Crows and red-haired women were considered bad luck, as was finding a snail underground. But the most feared and revered creatures in this subterranean world were the Knockers.

Similar to the infamous Cornish piskie, which led travellers astray above ground, Knockers were little people below, mischievous and often duplicitous and contrary. If you kept them onside with gifts such as pasty crusts, the noises they made – the taps, creaks and groans of the rocks settling – could guide the miners to rich lodes of ore or warn them of imminent rock falls. But offend them, by whistling underground for instance, and disaster was inevitable.

Witches and mermaids in Penwith

cornish myths and legends
Zennor and St Senara church. Credit: Kevin Britland / Alamy.

In a place as isolated and elemental as Penwith the whims and the wrath of Mother Nature were and still are a part of everyday life for the people who live there, so it is little wonder that in the past they became a portentous preoccupation. Witches were blamed for failed crops and for calling up storms, while mermaids lured sailors and fishermen to their deaths with their enchanting singing. The most famous of these aquatic maidens was the Mermaid of Zennor, whose image you can see carved into an ancient chair inside the 13th-century St Senara church.

Legend has it that a beautiful mermaid enticed away a young man called Matthew Trewhella, the churchwarden’s son, to meet his end in a watery grave. Interestingly parish records show that in 1633 the churchwarden at St Senara church in Zennor was one James Trewhella and the surname can still be found on headstones in the churchyard. So does the story of the mermaid hark back to some forgotten local tragedy?

cornish myths and legends
The Minack Theatre overlooks Porthcurno beach. Credit: David Pick / Alamy

The phantom ship of Porthcurno

Another coastal folktale featuring a portent of doom is the phantom ship of Porthcurno. This stunning cove is considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in Cornwall. With its crystal-clear waters and white sands it is perhaps the last place that you would expect to see a ghostly apparition.

But according to folklore, a spectral ship was often seen rising silently from the water here at dusk and then gliding up across the sand before vanishing like sea mist. Anyone unfortunate enough to see this black-sailed, crewless vessel was said to be cursed. There are those, however, that believe the tale was actually a clever smuggler’s ploy to keep prying eyes away from the cove while they went about their clandestine activities.

Whatever the origin or purpose of these wonderful stories, there can be no doubt that they add an air of magic and mystery to this little land apart, and that the wild landscape of Penwith would be a far lonelier place without them.

Read more in the July/August 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 7 June. 

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