(Image from Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)
"See saw; Margery Daw
Sold her bed and lay upon straw;
She sold her straw, and lay upon hay,
Piskies came and carr'd her away."
- Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch (1855)
A recent query about pixies in the Fairy Folklore Facebook Group reminded me that I still hadn’t gotten around to writing a blog post about Cornish folklore! I visited in 2013 but for some reason never got around to blogging about it, which I apologise for profusely as the Piskies certainly deserve a mention. The fairy folk of Cornwall are still very much celebrated locally, especially in Polperro where you can still choose from a wide selection of piskey statues and charms in the Joad the Wad shop!
In this blog I have only included stories that directly refer to piskies by name, but many more stories of the “small folk” can be found in Cornwall, including a good selection in Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.
Are Piskies and Pixies the same?
As far as I currently understand, and please do correct me if I’m wrong, in Cornwall they are known as piskay (Hitchins and Drew), piskey (Bottrell), pigsey (Hunt) or piskies (Hunt), and further afield in Devon they are known as pixies, piscy or pixy (Hunt). The most commonly used spelling seems to be piskey or piskies (plural) so that is the name I will use here unless directly quoting another source.
According to Evans-Wentz, “Pisky or Pisgy is really Pixy. Though as a patriotic Cornishman I ought not to admit it, I cannot deny, especially as it suits my argument better, that the Devon form is the correct one.” He goes on to explain, “I think the original word is really Cornish. The transposition of consonants, especially when s is one of them, is not uncommon in modern Cornish English.” This is outside of my area of expertise but feel free to comment with your thoughts on this.
Most agree on Piskies and Pixies being the same thing, but with regional names, however according to Hunt's Popular Romances (1865) the piscy or pixy of East Devon and Somerset is a different creature from his Cornish cousin, with the East Devon and Somerset Pixies being mischievous but harmless, and the Cornish Pixies being more cunning and with sharpened wits.
What are Piskies?
Hunt's Popular Romances (1865) divides the fairy family of Cornwall into 5 categories- Small people, spriggans, buccas bockles and knockers, browneys, and piskies or pigseys. He describes the piskey as a "most mischievous and very unsociable sprite. His favourite fun is to entice people into the bogs by appearing like the light from a cottage window, or as a man carrying a lantern. The Piskie partakes, in many respects, of the character of the Spriggan. So widespread were their depredations, and so annoying their tricks, that it at one time was necessary to select persons whose acuteness and ready tact were a match for these quick-witted wanderers, and many a clever man as become famous for his power to give charms against Pigseys.” “They must have been a merry lot, since to "laugh like a Piskie" is a popular saying. These little fellows were great plagues to the farmers, riding their colts and chasing their cows."
Evans-Wentz disagrees with Hunt's classifications and comments "The Pobel Vean or Small People, the Spriggans, and the Piskies are not really distinguishable from one another. Bucca, who properly is but one, is a deity not a fairy". He adds, "But the only true Cornish fairy is the Pisky, of the race which is the Pobel Vean or Little People, and the Spriggan is only one of his aspects. The Pisky would seem to be the ‘Brownie’ of the Lowland Scot". This is a fair comparison as piskies do seem fond of helping on farms, and like the brownie they disappear when given new clothing.
Courtney divides the fairies of Cornwall into four classes and also removes the Bucca, listing the classes as “the Small People, the Pixies (pronounced Piskies or Pisgies), the Spriggans, and the Knockers.” (Folk-Lore Journal Vol 5, 1887)
Couch disagrees with the categorisation of fairies of Cornwall and writes, "This creed has received so many additions and modifications at one time, and has suffered so many abstractions at another, that it is impossible to make any arrangement of our fairies into classes. "The elves of halls, brooks, standing lakes, and groves” are all now confounded under the generic name pisky." (Couch, 1871)
A most thorough description of piskies can be found in Couch’s article in Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, (1855) "Our piskies are little beings standing midway between the purely spiritual and the material, suffering a few, at least, of the ills incident to humanity. They have the power of making themselves seen, heard, and felt. They interest themselves in man's affairs; now doing him a good turn, anon taking offence at a trifle, and leading him into all manner of mischief. The rude gratitude of the husbandman is construed into an insult, and the capricious sprites mislead him on the first opportunity, and laugh heartily at his misadventures. They are great enemies of sluttery and encouragers of good husbandry. When not singing or dancing their chief nightly amusement is in riding the colts, and plaiting the manes, or tangling them with the seed-vessels of the burdock. Of a particular field in this neighbourhood it is reported that the farmer never puts his horses in it but he finds them in the morning in a state of great terror, panting and covered with foam. Their form of government is monarchical, as frequent mention is made of "the King of the piskies".
Illustration from North Cornwall Fairies and Legends, Tregarthern (1906)
Evans-Wentz mentions "the not very common idea that piskies are the souls of unbaptized children" and Henry Spragg, aged 70 of Delabole, told Evan-Wentz "I can remember hearing the old people say that the piskies are the spirits of dead-born children." Evan-Wentz also mentions the belief that "the little people are the living souls and bodies of the old Pagans, who, refusing Christianity, are miraculously preserved alive, but are condemned to decrease in size until they vanish altogether." He also mentions a theory of the survival of the traditions of a "dark pre-Celtic people. These were not necessarily pygmies, but smaller than Celts, and may have survived for a long time in forests and hill countries, sometimes friendly to the taller race, whence come the stories of piskies working for farmers, sometimes hostile, which may account for the legends of changelings and other mischievous tricks."
Evans-Wentz spoke to some of the older generations on a visit to Cornwall and published these accounts in 1911, and both an 80-year-old and 82-year-old spoke of the belief that piskies were thought of as spirits. A 78-year-old told him "I always understood the piskies to be little people. A great deal was said about ghosts in this place. Whether or not piskies are the same as ghosts I cannot tell, but I fancy the old folks thought they were." Miss Mary Ann Chirgwin of Newlyn told him that "The old people used to say the piskies were apparitions of the dead come back in the form of little people, but I can’t remember anything more than this about them."
"Piskey" was also said to be a common name in the neighbourhood of Truro for moths; "which are there believed by some to be fairies, by others, departed souls. As a consequence of this latter belief, it is there thought that when moths are very numerous their appearance is an omen of a great mortality." (Thoms, 1865)
Evans-Wentz paid visit to the country home of Miss Susan E. Gay, author of a history of Falmouth. She explained, "The pixies and fairies are little beings in the human form existing on the ‘astral plane’, who may be in the process of evolution; and, as such, I believe people have seen them. The ‘astral plane’ is not known to us now because our psychic faculty of perception has faded out by non-use, and this condition has been brought about by an almost exclusive development of the physical brain; but it is likely that the psychic faculty will develop again in its turn.’"
"Others say: there were no piskies at all in Cornwall before the invasion of the saints; but when St. Keverne and St. Just and St. Sennen and the rest sailed across the sea of their goodly millstones (for such was their saintliness that they could not do the simplest thing except in a miraculous way), the piskies came with them, perched on their shoulders, or hanging on to their beards; for in those days sanctity wore a merry face, and holy men were well disposed towards the sprightly little folk, and loved to have them about them, to cheer their vigils with sport and frolic. Others again declare the piskies to be no others than the ancient pagan gods of Cornwall; and this to me is the most probable explanation of all." (Cornish Magazine Vol 2, Lee 1899)
I end this section with a wonderful poem by Couch titled The Piskies, published in The Cornish Magazine Vol 2 Jan-May 1899
"We were not good enough for Heaven,
Not bad enough for Hell :
And therefore unto us ’twas given
Unseen on earth to dwell :
To listen by the moonlit thatch,
By window-blinds to lurk,
To watch men on their knees, and watch
Men go about their work.
We watch in hope to be forgiven ;
But still we cannot tell
Whose deeds are good enough for Heaven,
Whose bad enough for Hell."
What do Piskies look like?
In a tale of Piskey helping to thresh corn found in Bottrell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series (1873), the old dame "saw that the threshal was worked by a little old man, no more than three feet high, covered only with a few rags, and his long hair that hung over his shoulders like a bunch of rushes, (a bunch beaten for making sheep's spans). His face was broader than it was long; she couldn't make out the colour of his great round owl's-eyes, they were so shaded by his shaggy eyebrows, from between which his long nose, like a snout, poked out. His mouth reached from ear to ear, and they were set far back to make room for it. Pee noticed, too, that his teeth were very long and jagged, for he was so eager about his work that, with each stroke of the threshal, he kept moving his thin lips round and up and down, and his tongue in and out. He had nothing of a chin or neck to speak of, but shoulders broad enow for a man twice his height. His naked arms and legs were out of all proportion, and too long for his squat body; and his splayed feet were more like a quilkan's (frog's) than a man's." In another tale of a piskey thresher the piskey is described as "a little fellow, clad in a very tattered suit of green" (Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch, 1855) In both tales the piskies are unfortunately offered new clothing, and as expected disappear soon after.
Illustration from Polperro Pisky-Lore and Legendland booklet
For the piskies of Polperro, a “disposition to laughter is a striking trait in their character, and a person who laughs heartily and unrestrainedly is said to "laugh like a pisky." I have been able to gather little about the personality of these beings. My old friend, before mentioned, described them as about a span long, clad in green, and wearing straw hats, or little red caps, on their heads. (Couch, 1871)
A piskey who knocked on the door of a preacher in West Cornwall was described as "a tiny little man, no bigger than a whitneck when it sits up on its hind paws. Like a whitneck he was dressed in a brown coat and white waistcoat; his breeches were brown also, his stockings were green, and his shoe-buckles were two silver dewdrops. On his head he wore a red cap, which he doffed politely as soon as the door opened, discovering a natty little wig made of grey lichen. And in his right hand he flourished a straight twig, to the end of which a shred of white linen was died, by way of flag of truce." (Cornish Magazine Vol 2, Lee, 1899)
The King and Queen of the Piskies
The King and Queen of the Piskies
“Their form of government is monarchical, as frequent mention is made of "the King of the piskies.” He tells that two are known by name, as mentioned in the following rhyme:
“Jack o' the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad;
Light me home, the weather's bad.”- Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch (1855)
Wad was an old Cornish word for torch. Charms of Joan the Wad and Jack O’ Lantern have been sold in Cornwall for many years, especially around Polperro, and they are said to bring good luck, health and happiness. They can still be purchased online from the Joan the Wad Shop. They also sell charms of the lesser known Nicky Nan Knight Of The Knockers, Billy Bucca Duke Of The Buccas, and Sam the Prince of the Spriggans.
Advert from The Astonishing History of the Lucky Cornish Piskies, 1950
Another piskey with a name was Colman Grey. It was found starving with cold and hunger by a farmer at Langreek, who took it home to warm it by the hearth, and he fed it with milk. It recovered and never spoke but became very lively and playful and was a favourite in the family, until about three or four days later when a shrill voice was heard calling three times "Colman Grey!" and at once the piskey sprang up and cried "Ho! Ho! Ho! my daddy is come!" and off it flew through the keyhole. (Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch, 1855)
The Trouble with Piskies
"If a traveller among the peasantry happened to lose his way, whether by daylight or in darkness, especially if it was a road with which he had been well acquainted, he immediately concluded that he was "piskay led:" and in his belief he was confirmed, by the public opinion of his neighbours, who were always ready on his return, to recount a number of similar adventures, as corroborating evidences of the fact. To dispel the charm with which the "piskay led" traveller was entangled, nothing was deemed sufficient, but that of his turning one of his garments inside out. This generally fell upon one of his stockings; and if this precaution had been taken before the commencement of the journey, it was fully believed, that no such delusion would have happened. The turning of a garment inside out was therefore sometimes adopted as a preventative, and sometimes reported as a remedy, when the spell of the piskay was experienced." (Hitchins and Drew, 1824). However, according to a late witty Cornish doctor, "Pisky led is often whiskey led." Which may offer a more rational explanation for men getting lost walking home from the pub. (Folk-Lore Journal Vol 5, 1887).
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence. (Halliwell, 1861)
Hunt’s Popular Romances (1865) agrees, "No Pigsey could harm a man if his coat were inside-out, and it became very common practice for persons who had to go from village to village by night, to wear their jacket or cloak so turned, ostensibly to prevent the dew from taking the shine off the cloth, but in reality to render them safe from the Pigseys."
Piskies are blamed for many a mischief, not just leading travellers astray. Hitchins and Drew go on to explain that piskay was also blamed for the entangled threads of the seamstress, if her patches were discomposed, her thimble was lost, domestic articles mislaid, and much more! "If an accident happened, of which the immediate cause was not obvious, the blame was instantly thrown upon the piskays, and these invisible offenders were sometimes loaded with execrations."
Sometimes Piskey could be very troublesome indeed. (Bottrell, 1873). "Whilst she was still stooping, and groping for her glove and the buckles, she felt a great number of the small tribe—a score or more—leap on her back, neck, and head. At the same time others, tripping up her heels, laid her flat on the ground and rolled her over and over. More than once, when her face was uppermost, she caught a glimpse of Piskey, all in rags as usual, mounted on a year-old colt, his toes stuck in the mane, holding a rush in his hand to guide it. There he sat, putting on the smaller sprights to torment her, making a tee-hee-hee and haw-haw-haw, with his mouth open from ear to ear."
Piskies were said to be very fond of riding horses, especially those belonging to local farmers. “I was on a visit when a boy at a farm-house situated near Fowey river. Well do I remember the farmer with much sorrow telling us one morning at breakfast, that "the piskie people had been riding Tom again; " and this he regarded as certainly leading to the destruction of a fine young horse. I was taken to the stable to see the horse. There could be no doubt that the animal was much distressed, and refused to eat his food. The mane was said to be knotted into fairy stirrups; and Mr told me that he had no doubt at least twenty small people had sat upon the horse's neck. He even assured me that one of his men had seen them urging the horse to his utmost speed round and round one of his fields.” A Liskeard farmer also found this to be a problem, “If you’d had yourn hosses wrode to death every nite, you’d tell another tay! I reckon. But as sure as I ‘se living the pigsies do ride on ‘em whenever they’ve a mind to.” (Hunt, 1865)
A farmer in Bosfrancan in St Burrien had a fine cow called Daisey, who had an udder like a bucket yet she would only yield a gallon or so of milk before she would give a gentle bleat, cock her ears up, and the milk would stop flowing. No one could tell what was the matter, and they tried to get rid of but as fast as they drove her up the lane, she would escape and be back in the field again before they were half way home. On midsummer's evening, Daisey was the last cow to milk and the maid's bucket was so full she could scarcely lift it so she plucked up a handful of grass and clover to put in the head of her hat to steady the bucket. She had no sooner placed the hat on her head when she saw "hundreds and thousands of Small People swarming in all directions about the cow, and dipping their hands into the milk, taking it out on the clover blossoms and sucking them. The grass and clover, all in blossom, reached to the cow's belly. Hundreds of the little creatures ran up the long grass and clover stems, with buttercups, lady's smocks, convolvuluses, and foxglove flowers, to catch the milk that Daisey let flow from her four teats, like a shower, among them. Eight under the cow's udder the maid saw one much larger than the others, lying on his back, with his heels cocked up to the cow's belly. She knew he must be a Piskie, because he was laughing, with his mouth open from ear to ear. The little ones were running up and down his legs, filling their cups, and emptying them into the Piskie's mouth. Hundreds of others were on Daisey 'a back, scratching her rump, and tickling her round the horns and behind the ears. Others were smoothing down every hair of her shining coat into its place." The maid realised she must have put a four leafed clover in her hat, granting her sight of them. The mistress's mother knew the small people couldn't abide the smell of fish, nor the taste of salt or grease, and advised the maid to rub the cow's udder with fish brine. She did this, but soon wished she hadnt interfered. Daisey would go around the fields bleating and crying as if she'd lost her calf, and she pined away to skin and bone and was sold at the next Burrien fair for next to nothing, and the farmer only found bad luck afterwards. (Hunt, 1865)
One of perhaps the more unusual activities blamed on Piskey is “After Michaelmas, it is said, that blackberries are unwholesome because Piskey spoils them then.” A green bug, frequently found on bramble bushes in autumn, is also called by the name of piskey (Bottrell, 1873), so I’m not entirely sure who is getting the blame here, the bugs or the fairies! A lady in Newlyn said it was after the 31st of October when the blackberries are not fit to eat as "the pixies have been over them" (Evans-Wentz, 1911).
One evening John Taprail moored his boat beside a much larger barge and in the middle of the night was awoke by a voice warning him to get up and shift his rope over as his boat was in danger. He hurried to the boat only to find no dangers at all, but on his way back he spotted a crowd of little people congregated under the shelter of a boat lying dry upon the beach, and they were holding their hats out as one of their kind pitched a gold piece into each hat one by one. The sight of the gold made John forget the respect due to an assemblage of piskies and their habit of punishing those who intrude on their privacy, and he crept over and managed to add his hat in without being noticed. He withdrew his hat and snuck away before detection, taking his gold with him, but the defrauded piskies were soon on his heels and he barely escaped, leaving the tail of his sea-coat in their hands. (Crouch, 1871)
A tale common in many areas of the UK is that of the fairy midwife, and a piskey version can be found in Polperro. An old nurse was called upon to help a diminutive lady in labour and paid generously for her services. Afterwards she was washing the baby when she accidently applied soap to one of her eyes, and lo and behold her true surroundings were revealed to her and she saw "a crowd of piskies thronged the room, and went through unimaginable pranks". She returned home but spotted one of them later at a local fair, and when he asked which eye she could see him with she pointed to the eye she had smeared with the fairy suds, and she immediately received a blow from his pisky first and she was blind forever in that eye.
Like their fairy cousins of other areas, piskies were sometimes said to be responsible for the theft of human children. "A woman who lived near Breage Church had a fine girl baby, and she thought the piskies came and took it and put a withered child in its place. The withered child lived to be twenty years old, and was no larger when it died than when the piskies brought it. It was fretful and peevish and frightfully shrivelled. The parents believed that the piskies often used to come and look over a certain wall by the house to see the child. And I heard my grandmother say that the family once put the child out of doors at night to see if the piskies would take it back again.’" (Evans Wentz, 1911)
Another method of getting the real child back was to pay a visit to Men-an-Tol. "At the Men-an-Tol there is supposed to be a guardian fairy or pixy who can make miraculous cures. And my other knew of an actual case in which a changeling was put through the stone in order to get the real child back. It seems that evil pixies changed children, and that the pixy at the Men-an-Tol being good, could, in opposition, undo their work." In another story the true child could only be returned by laying a four-leaf clover on the changeling. (Evans-Wentz, 1911)
Illustration from North Cornwall Fairies and Legends, Tregarthern (1906)
Piskies Being Helpful
Piskies could also be very helpful, and were especially known for helping with threshing corn and cleaning houses. In a tale in Bottrell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall(1873) an old dame in a story tells "ever since I can remember, I have heard it said that Piskey threshed the corn in Boslow of winter's nights, and did other odd jobs all the year round for the old couple who lived here, but I wouldn't believe it. Yet here he es!" Unfortunately the old dame makes a mistake in fairy etiquette and when the small folk start sneezing due to all the straw dust she says "God bless 'e little men!" and they disappear and she feels a handful of dust thrown into her eyes as Piskey says "I spy thy snout, old Peepan Pee; And I'll serve thee out, or es much to me.". Remember, the fairies never like to be spied upon!
In many tales the piskies are similar to the Scottish Brownie, helping on farms and in old houses, and like their Scottish cousin they leave when given new clothing. The old dame in the tale mentions "We all know ragged as Piskey es, he's so proud that he won't wear cast-off clothes, or else he should have some of my dear old man's—the Lord rest him." She makes him some brand-new clothes, and sure enough when he puts on his new breeches, stockings, coat, and cap he sings "Piskey fine and Piskey gay, Piskey now will run away." and is never seen again. In another tale the man who spies the threshers incautiously thanked them through the key-hole, and when the piskies, who love to work "unheard and unespied", heard him they instantly vanished and never visited the barn again. (Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch, 1855)
A farmer's wife at "Colmans" in the parish of Werrington of a piskey that "frequently made its appearance in the form of a small child in the kitchen of the farm-house, where the inmates were accustomed to set a little stool for it. It would do a good deal of household work, but if the hearth and chimney corner were not kept neatly swept, it would pinch the maid. The piskey would often come into the kitchen and sit on its little stool before the fire, so that the old lady had many opportunities of seeing it. Indeed it was a familiar guest in the house for many months. At last it left the family under these circumstances. One evening it was sitting on the stool as usual, when it suddenly started, looked up and said, - "Piskey fine, and Piskey gay, Now, Piskey! run away!" and vanished; after which it never appeared again. (Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, Folk Lore 1859)
The Astonishing History of the Lucky Cornish Piskies (1950) tells of piskies bestowing a wonderful gift on a young blacksmith. Matthey Hosken, son of the smith of Porthennis, was a thoughtful and studious lad but his father did not appreciate his habit of "trying to make iron do what iron won't do", as he had a terrible habit of spoiling jobs. In his spare time he liked to climb the headland and lie among the furze with his back against the ancient cromlech overlooking the sea. Here he would lie and dream of intricate iron traceries and fine filigree work that one day he would accomplish, once he had learned the secret to make iron do what iron won't do. The piskies were aware of his hopes and dreams and that he was a good young fellow who followed an old and honourable trade, and they decided to help him prosper and told him of "the flux, the secret of Teague the smith, he who was armourer to King Arthur and his Knights." In the church of Porthennis, there stood a screen of ironwork, the centre panel of which had a spider in its web, that was a marvel that caused smiths from all over the country to wonder how the iron had been wrought so thin, but young Hosken let the secret die with him, and unfortunately his masterpiece later rusted away to nothingness. This seems to be a rewrite of an earlier version by Couch, where the gift was bestowed upon the blacksmith's son by a wren bird after he promises to stop shooting birds. Interestingly, in Couch's version the wrens are described as "the friend of a race that inhabited Cornwall ages ago. It builds in their cromlechs, and its song remembers them". (Couch, 1929)
Piskies do seem rather fonder of metal than the fairy folk of other areas. The Polperro Pisky-Lore and Legendland booklet tells “In Cornwall it is believed that wherever the piskies are fond of resorting the depths of the earth are rich in metal. Very many mines have been discovered by their singing”.
A piece of tin put into an ant's nest could "through pisky power be transmuted into silver, provided that it was inserted at some varying lucky moment about the time of the new moon." (Folk-Lore Journal Vol 5, 1887)
I’m not sure if this counts as being helpful, but it definitely did the man no harm. A lad from Portallow was sent to Polperro to buy some household necessaries from the shop, but night had set in by the time he headed home. When he heard a voice say "I'm for Portallow Green' he thought he may as well have the company and he answered "I'm for Portallow Green" too. He suddenly found himself on the Green surrounded by "a throng of little laughing piskies" and when a cry was heard from several tiny voices of "I'm for Seaton Beach" he joined in and was whisked away with them. After they had danced a while he heard a cry of "I'm for the King of France's cellar" and once again he joined in, and immediately found himself in a spacious cellar, and joined his mysterious companions in tasting the richest of wines. He returned home to Portallow Green with them eventually, but stole a goblet along the way to prove his journey, and it remained in his family for many generations after. (Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Couch, 1855)
Appeasing the Piskies
"A recent old cottage tenant at Poliphant, near Launceston, when asked why he allowed a hole in the wall of his house to remain unrepaired, answered that he would not have it stopped up on any account, as he left it on purpose for the piskeys to come in and out, as they had done for years." (An itinerary of Launceston, 1865)
Milk seems to be a favourite of the piskies. "It was only last winter, in a cottage not a hundred yards from where I am writing, that milk was set at night for piskies, who had been knocking on walls and generally making nuisances of themselves. Apparently the piskies only drank the ‘astral’ part of the milk (whatever that may be) and then the neighbouring cats drank what was left, and it disagreed with them. (Evans-Wentz, 1911)
An article by Charles Lee in the Cornish Magazine Vol 2 (1899) tells of an old woman who never looked dirty, for "Every night she opened the window a little way, set a dish of milk on the table, and went to bed. Every morning the milk was gone, the cloam washed and put by, the slab polished, the floor swept and sprinkled with white sand, and not a cobweb left under the planchin."
Protection from Piskies
"The country people in this neighbourhood sometimes put a prayer-book under a child's pillow as a charm to keep away the piskies. I am told that a poor woman near Launceston was fully persuaded that one of her children was taken away and a pisky substituted, the disaster being caused by the absence of the prayer-book on one particular night." (Choice Notes, 1859)
If you had been cursed by a piskey, Mrs Jane Tregurtha of Newlyn advises that "to remove the curses people would go to the wells blessed by the saints." (Evans-Wentz, 1911)
"In West Cornwall knobs of lead, known as pisky's pows or pisky feet, were placed at intervals on the roofs of farm-houses to prevent the piskies from dancing on them and turning the milk sour in the dairies." (Folk-Lore Journal Vol 5, 1887)
Apart from the above and turning an article of your clothing inside out, little else seems to have been written on how to protect against piskies, other than not angering them in the first place! A Penzance man told Evans-Wentz that “people of miserly nature used to put salt around a cow to keep the pixies away; and then the pixies would lead such mean people astray the very first opportunity that came.” In the previously mentioned tale of Daisey the cow, the piskies were kept away with fish and salt, but the story certainly did end well for the farmer. Perhaps using protection against the piskies isn’t quite such a good idea after all, and it’s better to leave them to their business.
Seeing Piskies & Where to Find Them
If you’d like to go and see a piskey, I’d urge you to think again! The piskies certainly don’t like to be spied on, and to do so would put yourself in great danger. Piskies were once used by parents as a warning. An 82-year-old man told Evans-Wentz in 1911 that “If we as children did anything wrong, the old folks would say to us, “The piskies will carry you away if you do that again.”’
However, if you would still like to see a piskey, a Penzance man offers this method, "I have heard my nurse say that she could see scores of them whenever she picked a four-leaf clover and put it in the wisp of straw which she carried on her head as a cushion for the bucket of milk. Her theory was that the richness of the milk was what attracted them. Pixies, like fairies, very much enjoyed milk" He also adds that “According to some country-people, the pixies have been seen in the day-time, but usually they are only seen at night.” Richard Harry, the historian of Mousehole, tells that the piskies are thought to appear on moonlight nights. Frank Ellis, aged 78, of Trevescan advises "If you keep quiet when they are dancing you’ll see them, but if you make any noise they’ll disappear." Mr Male, aged 82 of Delabole, tells "Piskies always come at night, and in marshy ground there are round places called pisky beds where they play." (Evan-Wentz, 1911).
The Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall of 1864 mentions that stone spindle-whorls found during the tilling of the ground are called in Cornwall "Piskey Grinding-Stones".
One sign of there being piskies nearby is the presence of a fairy circle. “In certain grass fields, mushrooms growing in a circle might be seen of a morning, and the old folks pointing to the mushrooms would say to the children, “Oh, the piskies have been dancing there last night.”’ (Evan-Wentz, 1911).
Below are further details of some of the places you may want to visit in search of piskies….
The Pisky-House, Bosahan
Little information is given on this site apart from William Murphy paid the site a visit with a surveyor and "the two of them heard such unearthly noises in it that they came running home in great excitement, saying they had heard the piskies.’" (Evans-Wentz, 1911)
Bal Lane, Germoe
Bal Lane in Germoe was said to be a notorious place for Piskies, according to Hunt's Popular Romances (1865) and one man returning from drinking found it "covered all over from end to end, and the Small People holding a fair there with all sorts of merchandise the prettiest sight they ever met with." He thought he saw his child there, and in the morning found an ugly wizened child in its place.
Logan Rock Cairn
"If the adventurous traveller who visits the Land's End district will go down as far as he can on the south-west side of the Logan Rock Cairn, and look over, he will see, in little sheltered places between the cairns, close down to the water's edge, beautifully green spots, with here and there some ferns and cliff-pinks. These are the gardens of the Small People, or, as they are called by the natives, Small Folk. They are beautiful little creatures, who appear to pass a life of constant enjoyment amongst their own favourite flowers." A native of St Levan tells "when I have been to sea close under the cliffs, of a fine summer's night, I have heard the sweetest of music, and seen hundreds of little lights moving about amongst what looked like flowers. Ay! and they are flowers too, for you may smell the sweet scent far out at sea. Indeed, I have heard many of the old men say, that they have smelt the sweet perfume, and heard the music from the fairy gardens of the Castle, when more than a mile from the shore." Strangely enough, you can find no flowers but the sea-pinks in these lovely green places by day, yet they have been described by those who have seen them in the midsummer moonlight as being covered with flowers of every colour, all of them far more brilliant than any blossoms seen in any mortal garden." (Hunt, 1865) This same story, almost word for word, appears in the Polperro Pisky-Lore and Legendland booklet, but the location has been changed to the Polperro cliffs and the small folk are called piskies instead.
Last but not least, a visit to Polperro is a must for anyone interested in learning more about piskies, and I recommend including a visit to the Joan the Wad shop on Lansallos Street to buy some lucky Polperro Piskies. If you live too far away to travel, they also sell online through their website. Below are some photos of the shop, with many thanks to the Joan the Wad shop for providing these wonderful photos.
Mention must be made of the tradition of Piskies being lucky. I'm not sure when this tradition began, but it certainly became popular, and as mentioned above in the section on Kings and Queens, many various charms and statues were and still are available to grant luck to the owner. A huge collection of them can be viewed here on the PelTorro Website.
The Joan the Wad shop in Polperro had a lucky well inside the shop itself, and it can still be seen today in their premises on Lansallos Street.
Image kindly provided by The Joan the Wad shop
The piskies still seem to giving good luck more recently too. A newspaper article in the Falmouth Packet September 2018 titled ‘Cornish Pisky leads to lost wedding ring found near Coverack’ tells how a holidaymaker lost his wedding ring on the beach near Coverack, only for it to be found two weeks later by Caroline Beadle, co-creator of Cornish Pisky Pals in the village, who was walking along the same beach, with one of her creations in her pocket.
The Decline of the Piskies
Hitchins and Drew describe in 1824 the already declining belief in piskies, "But the age of piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone. There is perhaps at present scarcely a house in Cornwall, which they are reputed to visit. They neither steal children, nor displace domestic articles. Even the fields and lanes which they formerly frequented, seem to be nearly forsaken. Their music is rarely heard; and they appear to have forgotten to attend their ancient midnight dance. The diffusion of knowledge, by which the people have been enlightened during the last half century, has considerably reduced the number of piskays: and even the few that remain, are evidently preparing to take their departure."
In 1871 Couch wrote regarding Polperro, "The belief in the little folk is far from dead among us, although the people of this generation hold it by a slighter tenure than their forefathers did, and are aware that piskies are now fair objects of ridicule, whatever they may formerly have been."
In a story of a piskey and a preacher, the piskies tell him that when the white monks came from Ireland and sprinkled them with holy water they shrank as the drops fell on them, and became as dwarfs. Later, the monks were replaced by people in black gowns and as people were not sure who to follow the piskies stopped shrinking, but then one day not long ago they woke to find they had suddenly grown old overnight, "so wizened were our faces, so shrunken our limbs" and the grass now towered above their heads. A new preacher from the East had arrived with another new creed. Some piskies wanted to move to Ireland, others wanted to waylay the preacher, but they instead decided to speak with him. They explained their situation and asked if there was room for them in his message as forgotten they would perish, but the preacher showed no sympathy and denounced the piskies as evil spirits, and imps of the pit, and he foretold the imminent doom of all piskies, spriggans, knockers, and brownies, and how they would in a little white be forgotten and perish from the land. They piskies wailed shrilly and fled shrieking and lamenting into the woods, never to be seen again (Cornish Magazine Vol 2, Lee, 1899).
I’m very glad to say that the piskies have never been completely forgotten, partly with great thanks to the Joan the Wad shop in Polperro for continuing to promote these traditions. Just remember, as long as we continue to remember the Cornish piskies, they will never shrink and disappear completely!
I will end by sharing with you a 'Prayer to the Piskies' found in an undated little booklet called A Short History of "Joan the Wad" Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys, issued from Joan's cottage in Lanivet in Bodmin:
"Oh, Piskey fine, piskey gay,
Piskey lead me not astray,
Piskey rain, Piskey hail,
Piskey, wellwish me by sail.
Oh, Piskey, in the dark wisht wood,
Piskey, help me to be good,
Piskey frost, piskey snow,
Piskey'm mazed my love to know,
Oh, Piskey in the cauchy well,
Piskey, please my love to tell."
Piskey lead me not astray,
Piskey rain, Piskey hail,
Piskey, wellwish me by sail.
Oh, Piskey, in the dark wisht wood,
Piskey, help me to be good,
Piskey frost, piskey snow,
Piskey'm mazed my love to know,
Oh, Piskey in the cauchy well,
Piskey, please my love to tell."
Sources and Further Information
The History of Cornwall: From the Earliest Records and Traditions, to the Present Time, Hitchins and Drew (1824)
Notes and Queries, Series 1, Volume 11, Folk Lore of a Cornish Village, Couch (1855)
Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, Folk Lore (1859)
Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, Halliwell (1861)
An itinerary of Launceston, Cornwall (1865)
Three Notelets on Shakespeare, Thoms (1865)
Popular Romances of the West of England, Hunt (1865)
The History of Polperro, Couch (1871)
Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Bottrell (1873)
Cornish Folk-Lore Part III, The Folk-Lore Journal Volume 5, Courtney (1887)
Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Hope (1893)
The Cornish Magazine Vol 2 Jan-May, articles by Couch and Lee (1899)
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz (1911)
News from the Duchy, Couch (1929)
The Astonishing History of the Lucky Cornish Piskies, Bailey (1950)
Polperro Pisky-Lore and Legendland, Pisky Place booklet (undated but appears to be pre-1950s)