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A History of Cornish Fairies and the Little Folk of Cornwall

by Kelvin Jones

In Cornwall, where I presently live, there are fairies. But let us be clear about the Cornish fairies. They were far from the diaphanous creatures with gossamer wings, beloved by the late Victorians and immortalised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (whose book, The Coming of The Fairies so surprised his readers). These were not the Little People who flitted here and there among the flowers of the meadows. They were elementals: spirits of the land and fierce protectors of its terrain. Since the land was sacred to the indigenous population of pre-industrial Cornwall, the Small People were its nature spirits.

Cornish Fairies

The Cornish ( a mixture of neolithic settlers, Irish and later Welsh immigrants) believed, like all Celtic peoples, that the boundary between the living and the dead was only a thin veil. The Irish called the fairies The Mothers or the Mothers' Blessing; and fairyland was the Land of Women. They believed that the fairies lived in the pagan sidh, the burial mounds or graves which scattered the countryside. At Samhain, the end of the old Celtic year (Halloween) the fairies came out of their hills since the hills were the tomb and womb of the Sacred Mother Earth. Such was the veneration of the Earth Mother among Cornish miners in the last century that they refused to make the sign of the cross when down a mine, for fear of offending the Small People by making a gesture that would remind them of their enemy, the Christian priest.

The land of fairy was a dream of long ago when the people of the fairy mound practised their skills and put up their monuments without war or strife. It was a golden age and the fairy queen was the Earth Mother. In her Crone phase she was the Bean sidhe or woman of the fairy mounds and is still remembered in Ireland today as the "banshee", the demoness whose shriek brought about instant death.

Fairy Beliefs and Religion

Throughout the Middle Ages the fairy religion was practised by women whose Goddess was under attack by the Christian church. Many of the confessions gathered from witches by the Inquisition (in Europe) and clergy (in Britain) refer guardedly to the Little People. The evidence against Joan of Arc, for example, included the fact that she danced around a fairy tree, garlanding it. In 1566 John Walsh of Dorset, who was accused of witchcraft, admitted being able to tell if a person was bewitched, a gift bestowed on him partly by faries. Bessie Dunlop, a wise woman and healer from Ayrshire, Scotland, possessed second sight. In her trial she said she had been taught this skill by a phantom fairy named Thorne or Thorne Reid. Another witch famous for her association with fairyland was Isobel Gowdie, who often went to fairyland, entering through caverns and mounds. She also said that fairies manufactured their own elf arrowheads in their caverns.

Homes of the Fairies and Where the Little Folk Lived

Many people believed that fairies lived deep in woods where they protected the sacred groves or "nemetons". And as late as the 17th Century it was said that there were shrines kept by "a thousand old women" who taught the rites of Venus to young maidens and instructed them in the arts of shape shifting (Harry Wedeck: A Treasury of Witchcraft). Christianity would have it that the fairies were fallen angels or demonic spirits. Hence, to associate with them was to side with the Devil. However, the word fairy comes from the Latin term, fata, or "fate".The Fates were supernatural women who visited newly born children. The old English term for fairy is fay, which means enchanted or bewitched. Hence we can see that fairies are essentially a belief rooted in the tradition of the goddess worshippers of old ( that is, pre-Christian) Europe.

Fairy Folklore and Christianity

Much of the folklore of fairies was coloured by Christian teaching which persisted over centuries. It was certainly believed by many people in Cornwall that fairies were the souls of the pagan dead. That is, being unbaptized, they were then confined to a limbo where they could neither ascend into heaven nor descend into hell. They were regarded as a race apart who lived side by side with men and women but who had greater powers than human beings.

The belief that fairies were a race of diminutive beings who inhabited the body of the earth was particularly strong in the western part of Britain and may have something to do with the spread of the Celts into what was once a country populated by neolithic farmers. In Ireland, for example, the Tuatha de Danaan lived in barrows and shelters. They were shy, hard working but retreated to their woodland areas and continued to worship their own gods and goddesses. Some were skilled metal smiths, some were herdsmen and some kept small stocks of cattle and horses.

Five Types of Fairies

Robert Hunt, in his Popular Romances of the West of England, divides the Cornish fairies into five classes: The Small People, The Spriggans, The Piskies (or Pigseys), The Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers and the Browneys. The first he believed to be the spirits of the dead ancestors; the Spriggans were offshoots of the trolls and were to be found in the vicinity of cromlechs and standings stones; the piskies were mischievous sprites who led men and women astray; the buccas were sprites of the mines and the browney was a spirit of the household.

Fairy Beliefs through the Ages

Hunt's classification may or may not be true, for unlike William Bottrell, the original recorder of Cornish folklore, he often relied on secondhand sources for his stories. At the beginning of this century, another folklorist, W. Y. Evans Wentz, travelled the length and breadth of the county, collecting first hand accounts of fairy beliefs from aging residents. According to almost all the people he then met, the belief in pixies or fairies lay in ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic beliefs. Most people he talked to mentioned the word "piskies" or "little folk". According to a Mrs Jane Tregurtha of Newlyn, "The old people thoroughly believed in the little folk, and that they gambolled all over the moors on moonlight nights. Some pixies would rain down blessings and others curses; and to remove the curses people would go to the wells blessed by the saints. Whenever anything went wrong in the kitchen at night the pixies were blamed." And at the Men An Tol there was supposed to be a guardian fairy or pixy who could make miraculous cures. Mrs Tregurtha's mother knew of a case in which a changeling was put through the stone in order to get the real child back. According to another correspondent, Mr Richard Harry of Mousehole, "they are said to exhibit almost fiendish powers. In a certain sense they are considered spiritual, but in another sense they are much materialized in the conceptions of people.”

One of his contacts was John Gilbert Guy, a seventy-eight year old fisherman from Sennen Cove. He called the fairies "the small people" and claimed that they were seen at Sennen by the hundreds. "My grandmother used to put down a good furze fire for them on stormy nights because, as she said, "They are a sort of people wandering about the world with no home or habitation, and ought to be given a little comfort. Up on the hill you'll see a round ring with grass greener than anywhere else, and that is where the small people used to dance". Another correspondent, a man named Bottrell from St Teath (not William Bottrell !) said to Wentz that the "old people (said) that the piskies are the spirits of dead-born children".

One of Wentz's contacts at this time was Miss M A Courtney, whose volume Cornish Feasts and Folklore provides us with a rare glimpse into the folk beliefs of the late 19th Century. According to Miss Courtney, the piskey in West Cornwall was "a ragged merry little fellow, interesting himself in human affairs, threshing the farmer's corn at nights, or doing other work, and pinching the maidservants when they leave the house dirty at bedtime." Several other legends prevailed at that time. Some people believed that unbaptized children were said to turn into piskies when they died; that moths were believed also to be departed souls and were in some areas referred to as piskies. It was also once a common custom in East Cornwall, when houses were built, to leave holes in walls by which the piskies could enter. To stop them up would simply drive away good luck. In West Cornwall knobs of lead, known as pisky's paws or feet were placed at intervals on roofs of farm houses to prevent the piskies from dancing on them and turning the milk sour. Miss Courtney maintained that the spriggans or sprites were spiteful creatures who carried off babies from their mothers and substituted changelings. Knockers or mine fairies were thought to be the souls of Jews who crucified Christ and were sent by the Romans to work as slaves in the tin mines. Knockers, like spriggans, were ugly and vindictive creatures. The Bucca was a spirit who had to be propitiated. Originally the Bucca may well have been a localized form of Celtic deity.

All in all, even now, in the era of smartphones and high speed communications, if you venture onto the remote moors of Bodmin near to here, one should always be aware of the fairy presence.

Kelvin I Jones, author of 'Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective', etc.

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At a Romano-British hill fort in Kent a strange Celtic stone head is found. The ancient artefact soon has a terrifying effect on whoever it comes into contact with since it is the stone talisman of a Celtic warrior whose speciality was the severing of his opponents' heads in battle. The Janus also has the power to project terrifying dreams into the minds of the living. An atmospheric contemporary horror tale by the author of Twelve After Midnight and Carter's Occult Casebook. 'Then, at length, he would turn out the light and leave the room, his mind full of plans and stratagems. And behind him, in the darkness of the vault, the Janus would know that soon now it would rise like a phoenix from the ashes, bringing the dead back into the daylight, demanding the Blood Sacrifice...'

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Norfolk based detective John Bottrell and his partner had been looking forward to a relaxing holiday with old friends in the quiet Cornish village of Saint Maddern. But when the vicar of Saint Maddern is found murdered in the church, there are few clues as to the identity of her assailant, much to the frustration of Bottrell and his ex colleague DCI Ray Sexton. As midsummer day approaches and the local pagans prepare for their 'Day of Harmonic Convergence,' more murders follow, and Bottrell is convinced that there are dark forces abroad in the community. A Cornish murder mystery with an occult twist from the author of Stone Dead and Witch Jar.

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An exhaustive and definitive study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's career as a psychic investigator by Sherlock Holmes biographer Kelvin I. Jones.The author has been a prolific writer for a quarter of a century. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective. Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: "Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes."

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The Complete Inspector Ketch: The Casebook Files Of A Norwich Detective

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The complete edition of crime stories, featuring the lugubrious, alcoholic and long in the tooth East Anglian detective, DCI Ketch.The novel and sixteen short stories in this volume feature a dogged Norwich detective, 'Ketch', so named after his ancestor, Jack Ketch the hangman. Ketch (real name Huw Price) is an alcoholic, nearing retirement in the force. Seventeen atmospheric tales of murder and mayhem, set in and around the towns and villages of Norfolk, involving blackmail, revenge, lust and obsession. By the author of the Stone Dead Omnibus.

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Carter's Occult Casebook

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William Bottrell, the most famous of all Cornish storytellers, once described himself as "an old Celt". This seems appropriate when one looks at his prolific output of "drolls", published privately between 1870 and 1880 for the benefit of the middle class readership of Penzance. The tales he collected came from the lips of the miners and the local people. A new edition of the Cornish folklore classic, with an introduction by Kelvin Jones

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It is December 1888. The body of Queen Victoria's physician is discovered in a railway carriage on Paddington Station. Sherlock summons his brother Mycroft to the scene. Sherlock is convinced the crime bears no resemblance to the Ripper murders but when a letter arrives at Scotland Yard, ostensibly from the Ripper, claiming he is the author of the crime, Lestrade doubts Sherlock's wisdom. When the body of Sir James Fawcett, a leading expert on tropical diseases, is found at his home in Chelsea the day after, Sherlock realises that a challenging criminal mind is at work. This Sherlock Holmes novel, which follows the author's own chronology of the cases of Holmes, introduces readers to a number of real life Victorian celebrities, including Oscar Wilde. By the author of 'Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective.'

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Witch Jar

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When ex-metropolitan police detective and psychic John Bottrell returns to Cornwall to recuperate, having inherited a cottage from his mother-in-law on the remote Lizard peninsula of West Cornwall, he little realises that his analytical abilities will be tested to the full. On the very day of his arrival in the village of St Sampson, Bottrell's car collides with that of local incomer Melanie Pearson, with whom he strikes up an immediate rapport. When Melanie's daughter, Isobel, is found hanging from a tree in the mysterious Hob's Wood, her death is at first thought to be another suicide. But when Bottrell meets Ian Glenister, a former Metropolitan police colleague, assigned to investigate Isobel's death, he learns that foul play is suspected in the deaths of two other teenagers. Bottrell, a melancholy alcoholic, stalks the wild Cornish landscape in this psychological thriller which combines elements of the occult, new age overtones and traditional crime narrative. Witch Jar is the second in the series of novels featuring John Bottrell.

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