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Piskies, Spriggans and Knockers

William Bottrell (1880)



CCORDING to the Fairy belief of the old Cornish folk, the Piskey has seldom been seen in any other shape than that of a weird, wizzened-looking, little old man. As such he has often been spied of moonlight winterís nights threshing the corn in the barns of lonely places. Boslow and Lejarn are often spoken of as being favourite haunts of the goblin. Another of his well- known pranks is to mount on the necks of the colts, where he plaits his Piskey stirrups in the winter, and rides the colts after the cows like mad in the summer. Leading the folks into the bogs, by appearing like a person with a lantern or light from a window, were of constant occurrence unless the night wanderer took the precaution to turn some garment inside out, to break the spell.

The Spriggans, quite a different class of beings, are the dourest and most ugly set of sprights belonging to the elfin tribe; they are only seen about old ruins, barrows, giantís quoits and castles, or other places where treasure is buried, of which they have the charge. They also steal children, leaving their own ugly brats in their place, bring bad weather to blight the crops, whirlwinds over the fields of cut corn, and do much other mischief to those who meddle with their favourite haunts.

The innocent Small-people, on the contrary, are always described as being extremely beautiful by all who have had the luck to see them, holding their merry fairs and sprightly dances on the velvety turf of the greens, sheltered glades between the cairns, or in other secluded pleasant places, dressed in their bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three-cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked with lace and silver bells. They are as lovely as the flowers of the fields. These good small folks often showed great kindness to those pcople to whom they took a fancy, and have frequently been known to come into poor cottages, divert good old bed-ridden folks with their merry pranks and gambols, and fill the air with the delicious odours of flowers, and such sweet melody as few but angels ever hear and live.

The Bockles, or Knockers, can scarcely be classed as fairies ; they seem rather to be a hybrid race between ordinary ghosts and elves, as the miners believe them to be the restless souls of the Jews who formerly worked 'in the tin-mines of Cornwall. The tinners often hear them working when underground; sometimes, these ghostly workers may be heard even from the surface; yet they so rarely make their appearance now that we hardly know what they are like.

There are a few other mythical beings belonging to our elvin creed, but they have been so seldom seen of latter days, that very little is now known of the Buccas, Browneys, Mermaids, etc. Probably the mermaids so much dislike steam-ships that the fair syrens have taken themselves off, with all their combs and glasses, to the China seas, so as to be out of the way of the fiery monsters of the deep.


From 'Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall' vol. 3