Tales from the Tin Mines
St Just is the most westerly town in mainland Britain and the nearest to Land's End, and although the identity of the Saint has long been forgotten, the legacy of this mining centre of the Penwith peninsula lives on with disused engine houses littering the coastline of Cape Cornwall. Miner's were superstitious men and many strange beliefs grew around the copper and tin mines of Cornwall. Cornwall's deepest mine is 1,000 metres deep and some run for great distances under the sea bed, some levels so close that miners claimed to be able to hear the rumbling of boulders being moved by the tides above their heads. Copper and tin have been extracted from Cornwall since the Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago and it would seem that since prehistoric times the act of removing this material was considered a ritual act. Tales of the supernatural arose around mines and miners as people who were revered in the act of entering the earth, the abode of the gods, and retrieving the ore of these precious metals to manufacture high quality weapons, cauldrons and ornamental metalwork, over many, many hours and days to be later cast into wetlands and rivers as votive offerings to underworld deities.
|The chimneys of Levant Mine from Pendeen Watch. |
(Sheila Russell - Wikimedia Commons)
The sprites of Cornish mines, particularly in the Land's End peninsula, are known as the 'Knockers'. Miners treated the Knockers with respect and it was believed that anyone who was disrespectful to them would suffer bad luck. When a mine closed it is believed that the Knockers lived on in the abandoned mine. The activities of Knockers is recorded at Ballowall and Balleswidden mines near St Just, and the Rosewall and Ransom mines at St Ives. Generally the Knockers were benevolent and their tapping guided human miners toward productive lodes provided they received a portion of the miners lunch, usually the “hoggan” from his pasty, or “fuggan”, a piece of his cake. Some believed they were the spirits of Jewish miners, introduced into the Cornish mines since the time of the crucifixion, as they were never heard working on the Jewish sabbath. Others claimed they were not the spirits of Jewish miners but of those who had crucified Christ who could be heard gently singing in the mines on Christmas Day, Easter Day, All Saint's Day and the Jewish Sabbath.
According to an account by Wiliam Bottrell in A Tinner's Fireside Stories, the faery miners who worked in Ballowall mine were; “miserable, little, old, withered, dried up creatures; the tallest of them no more than three foot six or thereaway, with shanks like drumsticks, and their arms as long, or longer, than their legs. They had big, ugly heads, with grey or red locks, squinting eyes, hook noses and mouths from ear to ear. The one older and uglier than the rest seemed to take the lead in making wry faces and all sorts of mocking tricks. When he put his thumb to his nose and squinted at Tom, all those behind him did the same. Then all turned their backs, stooped down, lolled out their tongues and grinned at him from between their spindle shanks.”
The miner Tom Trevorrow had insulted the Knockers by refusing to leave the hoggan for them. The old miners had told Tom that the levels he was working on were more infested with “knackers” than any other part of the mine. These mischievous sprites were seen on many occasion running around the blacksmith's shop and going down the Buck Shaft that entered the current level he was working in. The shaft was so named because of a black buck-goat, or Bucca in the shape of one, was seen to go down the shaft but never found below. The term Bucca can mean hob goblin, or imp and corresponds to the Irish “puca”, English “puck” or Welsh “pwca”.
The Tinners' Way, known as the Old St Ives Road, is thought to have been an ancient trackway traversing some of West Penwith's loneliest and wildest uplands. Thought to start at the Neolithic axe factory at Kenidjack castle cliff, running to the trading port of St Ives and the Hayle estuary, tin and copper ore were no doubt transported along this track which passes many ancient Cornish sites.
Carn Kenidjack, The Hooting Cairn
"A weird tract is that of Kenidzhek and the Gump, and of ill repute. The old, half-starved horses on the common, with their hides grown rusty brown, like dried and withered grass, by exposure, are ridden by the archfiend at night. He is said to hunt lost souls over this heath; and an old stile hard by bears an evil name, for there the souls are sure to be caught, none being able to get over it. The people tell of midnight fights by demons, and of a shadowy form holding a lantern to the combatants." - J T Blight, Week at the Land's End, 1861.
About a mile to the north of St Just, and about a mile inland from the coast, is an odd, lonely hill, topped by an odd shaped granite tor known as Cairn Kenidzhek, or Carn Kenidjack, situated on the north road from St Just to Penzance, distinguishable from other hills by its strikingly rugged character. Carn Kenidjack is also known as 'The Hooting Cairn' which derives from the old form of its name 'Carn Usack', or 'Carnidgack', as legend say the rocks emit an unearthly sound as the wind howls through the twisted crags.
By St. Just, not far from Cape Cornwall and the sea, is a flat, sinister tract of land between Chun Castle and Carn Kenidjack. Known as The Gump (Cornish for 'moor', we are told), a place said to be haunted by witches and demons, a place where the piskies used to hold their merrymakings and lead mortals astray. It is here that An' Pee Tregger encountered the pisky on her way home to Pendeen from Penzance market on Hallan Eve, the nearest Sunday to Halloween.
Blight wrote, “A weird tract is that of Kenidzhek and the Gump.” He added, “Even by day it imparts a gloomy and mysterious impression: by night the miners cross the Gump in fear and trembling.”
The Gump is also associated with mysterious lights. The nineteenth century antiquarian Robert Hunt recalls a tale of a man who went onto The Gump during the harvest moon to retrieve fairy treasure. He had not gone far when he heard enchanting music coming from under the ground, when suddenly a mound in front of him opened up and all around him was glowing with multi-coloured lights. He saw a troop of small people emerge from the mound playing various instruments. He quickly found himself surrounded and some more of the small people brought out gold and silver vessels and jewellery as the lights intensified. The Gump was alive with countless small people and glittering lights. So entranced with what he saw he was unaware that the first troop had thrown a web of threads over him and held tight the ends. When the sun rose the man found himself alone on the moor but tied to the ground by thousands of gossamer threads glistening with dew in the soft morning light.
|Carn Kenidjack – J T Blight|
Nearby on a windy ridge over looking the sea is Chun Quoit, the best preserved of all the dolmens in Cornwall, the only one in West Penwith to have retained its capstone, unlike the neighbouring Zennor and Mulfra Quoits located in open heather moorland near Pendeen and Morvah. Close-by is the Iron Age hillfort of Chun Castle, constructed some two thousand years after the quoit. The name 'Chun' is said to derive from 'Chy-an-Woone' meaning 'the House on the Downs' in old Cornish. Evidence of tin smelting has been uncovered at the hillfort, which legend claims was built by Jack of The Hammer, or Jack the Tinner, now seen as a representation of the Celtic god Lugh.
|Chun Quoit (Jim Champion – Wikimedia Commons)|
Of Cornwall's twenty stone circles, six are located on the Land's End peninsula, one is questionable and another has all but disappeared. West Penwith has five remaining stone circles, including Tregeseal, situated half a mile north of St Just. Variously known as the Nine Maidens or Dancing Stones, Tregeseal stone circle lies on the southern fringe of the moor dominated by the rugged outline of Carn Kenidjack. On the eastern horizon a tall stone marks an alignment from the stone circle to the May Day sunrise, Beltane. Extending this line east, and just visible from the tall stone, is West Lanyon Quoit.
This lonely circle of nineteen stones, all but one still erect, was once the eastern most of a line of three, similar to the Hurlers, near Liskeard on Bodmin Moor. Four stones of the centre circle survive, incorporated into the hedge of the field nearby, dismantled in 1905, the rest of the circle was destroyed by the landowner in 1961. The western circle disappeared centuries ago, its former existence detected from crop marks on aerial photographs. Just to the north of the stone circle are a number of round barrows situated alongside the path leading towards the Kenidjack Holed Stones, some 300 yards south-east of Kenidjack Carn.
The Tregeseal Barrow is an oval mound of an unusual entrance grave type known as a Scillonian Chambered Tomb. The Scillonian group of entrance graves is so called because the greatest concentration of the tombs is found on the Isles of Scilly. Similar entrance graves, consisting of a narrow entrance leading into a rectangular burial chamber covered by a small round stone cairn, are also known in Brittany and the Channel Islands.
Overlooking the rugged granite cliffs to the south of Cape Cornwall, facing west toward the setting sun, is the prehistoric funerary cairn known as Barrowall Barrow.
Ballowall Barrow, or Cam Gluze or Gloose, is one of the largest and most complex of the prehistoric funerary monuments that cluster along the West Penwith coastline. Situated one mile west of St Just it is thought the barrow was constructed by local communities to provide a striking tomb for the dead with a spectacular sea-cliff vista.
Ballowall Common has been heavily exploited by miners for the many lodes of tin which underlie this area, and the monument had long been concealed, and thus protected, beneath spoil from the mine. The large, multi-phased monument is unique. No other monument of this type has so far been identified in Cornwall although during the 19th century the Cornish antiquarian William Copeland (WC) Borlase mentioned the excavation of another cairn nearby which showed some similarities in construction. Unfortunately no trace of this second cairn now survives.
It is probable that a conventional Neolithic Scillonian Chambered Tomb was the first structure here, followed in the middle-Bronze Age by a central cairn and cists. Finally, a collar was incorporated into the original mound and chamber of the entrance grave. The top of the cairn is now missing but persists to a height of almost 10ft. The barrow was lost after being used throughout the Neolithic and Middle Bronze Age. The 67 ft diameter cairn lie hidden for generations under the spoil from local tin mining activity.
|Ballowall Barrow (reconstruction by Michael Bott)|
Local tales suggest that the mound was exposed and recognisable as such perhaps not long before Borlase’s investigation. Borlase is said to have been drawn to the site by tales from miners returning from work at night who had reported seeing strange lights burning on the neolithic Ballowall Barrow on the cliff top. These mysterious lights were interpreted as dancing faeries.
J T Blight, Week at the Land's End, 1861. (Reprint 1989).
William Bottrell,Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, 1873.
William Copeland Borlase, Naenia Cornubiae, 1872. (Reprint, 2010).
CW Dymond, Cornwall's Ancient Stones: a Magalithic Enquiry, Oakmagic, 1999.
Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1903. (Reprint 2012).
John Michell, The Old Stones of Land's End, Garnstone Press, 1974.
Craig Weatherhill & Paul Devereux, Myths & Legends of Cornwall, Sigma,1994.
Craig Weatherhill, Belerion, Alison Hodge, 1981.
Craig Weatherhill, Cornovia, Alison Hodge, 1985.
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