As legend would have it, Cornwall is a land inhabited by giants and fairies, Saints and Kings, mermaids and heroes. A place filled with tales of triumph and tragedy, kept alive through the ages by the humble storytelling townsfolk. Even in these modern times, Cornwall is alive with mysticism, and rife with places to see folklore come to life before your eyes. In honour of National ‘share a story’ month, we’d like to share with you a few Cornish Folk tales and where to find them.
St Michael’s Mount is a small island in Cornwall. You can only get to by foot at low tide, otherwise you must take a boat. The island is said to have been built by Cormoran the giant, with the help of his wife Cormelian.
Cormoran was a giant bigger than any tree you’ve ever seen. He lived in the forest with his wife Cormelian. One day, he ordered her to build him a stronghold out of granite. The journey to the granite quarry was long and tiresome, but Cormelian obeyed.
So she began to pile the granite rocks on the forest floor while Cormoran napped in the shade. Exhausted, she decided to lighten her workload while he slept. She began to collect greenstone, much lighter to carry than the granite, and hide it in her apron under the granite. This way she thought, Cormoran will never notice.
So she collected the greenstone and the granite, and created the pile of boulders we now know as St Michael’s Mount.
When the villagers saw the Mount from their windows, they cried: ‘Who will stop this giant? None of our cows or sheep will be safe now that Cormoran can take them to his stronghold! We’ll all starve!’
But there was one local boy by the name of Jack. Jack was fed up with the giant stealing livestock, so he decided to do something to stop him. One night, he crept out and set a trap.
Jack dug a huge pit near the causeway and covered it over with brambles and straw. He then marched up to the front of St Michael’s Mount and blew his horn.
Outraged at the noise, Cormoran stormed out of his stronghold.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ bellowed the giant.
‘Come and get me!’ shouted Jack, running back down the causeway.
Jack was quick, but Cormoran was soon on his heel. At the last second, Jack turned off the causeway. The big, clumsy giant couldn’t stop in time, an thus fell down the pit with a mighty thud. Jack walked to edge of the pit and peered down; ‘I hope this will teach you a lesson!’ he said. ‘Giants shouldn’t steal our livestock!’
Jack went on to live a life full of adventure in which he dealt with many cruel giants. We’re sure you’ve heard of Jack and the beanstalk?
As for Cormoran and Cormelian, they never bothered their neighbours again.
Where to see them – St. Michael’s Mount, 45min drive from Newquay. If you go at high tide, the ferry you take will launch from Chapel Rock – the place where Cormelian dropped her last pile of greenstone.
Why not also visit The Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor? An ancient stone momument formed when a fight broke out between a man and a giant. According to local legend, that is. Just a 40 minute drive and short walk from Newquay.
Playful and micheavous creatures also known as Pixies. The likliest places to find these mishievous beings are stone circles, barrows, ancient sites and moorland areas. One of the most famous among the piskies is their Queen, Joan the Wad.
‘Good fortune will nod, if you carry upon you Joan the Wad’
There are two different ways to interpret Joan the Wad. Some say she is a will-o-the-wisp kind of being, who delights in luring travellers off their path. Others claim she has a good heart and lights the way for the lost. ‘Wad’ translates to ‘torch’, giving more clout to the latter theory. According to the lore, it is good luck to carry her with you. There are many places in Cornwall where you can find a Joan the Wad key ring!
Another interesting character among the piskies is that of Joan’s husband, King of the Piskies. His name is Jack-O-Latern, perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Jack enjoys nothing more than leading you astray onto the vast Cornish Moors. Inconvenient yes, but it is in the nature of the piskies, afterall, to cause mischief on the unsuspecting. As fire spirits, they have the ability to emit light in the darkness. This tricks humans to believing they are following a lantern (the origin of ‘fairy lights’).
According to the myth, if you were to call upon Joan the Wad for help, she would likely heed your request and lead you back to a safe path.
If you want to go Piskie – spotting, take a short drive less than 20 mins East of Newquay to visit the Nine Maidens Stone Row.
Local myth says the stones were created when nine maidens were turned to stone as punishment for dancing on a Sunday. The Fiddler who played for them is now also a megalith, located north of the row. One of the main past times for Piskies is dancing, so together with their love of ancient sites and open fields, this is sure to be a favourite spot among them.
At the mouth of the River Camel estuary on the North Cornish coast lies an infamous sandbar that is responsible for many a shipwreck.
The legend about how it got there is a story about one, vengeful mermaid. It is said that she cursed the harbour, forming what is now known as the Doom Bar. Like many Cornish folk tales, this story has a few variations. This is ones of them…
One day, a local sailor was out hunting when he stumbled across a woman of unparalleled beauty. Her eyes were as blue as the ocean itself, her hair was long and luscious. In the place of legs, she had a long, scaly fish tale which glittered wondrously in the sunlight. He instantly begged her to marry him.
The mermaid was not interested in being wed to a human man. Without thinking twice, she rejected him.
Angry, bitter and desperate to ease his damaged pride, the sailor shot the mermaid.
As she lay dying, the mermaid cried out a furious curse on the harbour. Almost instantly, everything darkened. Lightening ripped through the clouds and crashes of thunder filled the air. A vicious storm tore through the skies and quaked through the earth to give rise to a sandbar. This sandbar has proved dangerous and often deadly for any sailors who pass there, earning it the title; The Doom Bar.
Since that day, the Doom Bar has accounted for more than 600 beachings, capsizes and wrecks.
This tale, like many that surround mermaids, serves as a lesson to mortal men: it would be wise not to mess with mermaids.
This story concerns the Mermaid of Padstow, located less than a 30 minute drive from Newquay. A beauiful village to explore, you can visit the Doom Bar via a lovely coastal walk or kayak along the Camel estuary. (To book a kayak trip check out Vertical Decscents Cornwall here.)
In one of several versions of the tale, this same mermaid also enjoyed sitting on a rock at Hawker’s Cove and brushing her long hair. Hawker’s Cove is a short 30 minute drive up the North Cornish Coast from Newquay.
The Great King Arthur
The most famous of all legends associated with Cornwall is that of King Arthur. Founder of Britain and a true warrior, the tales of brave King Arthur are now considered myth. Arthurian legends appear many times in different areas of Britain, but his conception and birth are said to have taken place at Tintagel Castle on the North Cornish coast.
Everything about Arthur is overflowing with mystical intervention, including his conception. Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, a cruel man, took a liking to Igraine, the beautiful wife of the Duke of Cornwall. He acquired the help of the wizard Merlin to assist him in disguising himself as the Duke in order to trick Igraine into becoming Arthur’s mother.
The plan worked, and nine months later baby Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle. This child however, was illegitimate, and Arthur would not claim his rightful place on the throne until many years later, following the death of Uther Pendragon, the return of Merlin, and the famous pulling of a legedary sword from a stone.
You can visit the ruin of Tintagel Castle less than an hour drive from Newquay. The wonder and majesty of this place is second to none and perfect for a day trip. For more details on days out in Cornwall including Tintagel and the nearby waterfall at St nectans Glenn, check out our other blog post here.
Excalibur & The Lady of the Lake
As for the famous sword Excalibur, it is the star of many tales. There is a story that invloves the mysterious water spirit Nimue, commonly known as the Lady of the Lake. Long before Arthur was born, Merlin the great wizard, went in search of Nimue and appealed to her to find him a boon; ‘I have dreamed the future’ he told her ‘and your role within it, Lady. For one day my powers will grow strong enough to move God’s hand. Bitter wars will be fought. Reckless lust will be satiated, causing a child to be born in the darkness. He will rise to become an extraordinary King. He is the one who needs your gift’.
Nimue agreed to seek out a gift befitting such a King, and quested beyond the mist to find it. The gift was the sword Excalibur. Excalibur would go on to accompany Arthur on many adventures and into numerous battles, including his final one.
On Bodmin Moor there lies a laked called Dozmary Pool. The lake is ranked among the most beautiful in Britain, and is thought to be the resting place of both Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake. King Arthur is also believed to have fallen nearby, thus bringing about the end of the Golden Age.
The location of Bodmin Moor is perfect for hikers, just a 35 min drive from Newquay.
Staying with us
Newquay is the perfect base to explore the magic of Cornwall. We hope we have inspired you with these Cornish folk tales and where find them. Make sure to visit some of these ancient, mystical sites on your next trip! To book your next stay with us, head to our accommodation page here.