Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
One old story ascribes the choking of Parcurno and Parchapel to the mischievous spirit Tregeagle, who was sent to Gwenvor Cove and there required to remain until he made a truss of sand—to be bound with ropes spun of the same—and carried it to a rock above high-water mark. For many years he toiled in vain at his task, and his howling would be heard for many miles away when winds or waves scattered the sand he had piled up during low water.
One very frosty night, however, by pouring water from Velan-Dreath brook over his truss he succeeded in making it hold together and bore it to a rock above the flow of spring tides.
Then, as some say, that very night, as he took his way over or along the coast towards Helston, to revisit and torment those who raised him from the grave, by way of showing his exultation at having completed his task, or for mere deviltry perhaps, he swept all the sand out of Nanjisel and around Pedn-pen-with into Parcurno and adjacent coves, without letting any enter Pargwartha.
Another tradition says that sweeping the sand from Nanjisel to the east of Tol-pedn was assigned to Tregeagle as a separate task.
After this exploit the troublesome spirit was again sent to Gwenvor to make a truss of sand. There he remains toiling to
this day—unable to perform what is required in order to regain his liberty, because he was bound not to use Velan-Dreath water or any other.
There is also a very old belief that spectre ships frequently visited Parcurno, both before and since its navigable channel became filled with sand, and that they were often seen sailing up and down the valley, over dry land the same as on the sea.
These naval apparitions were, in olden times, regarded as "tokens" that enemies were about to make a descent; the number of phantom vessels foreboded the sea-robbers’ approaching force.
This presage of yore was held for truth by many old folks but lately deceased; yet latterly it has somehow changed its character and become connected with the history of a person who, little more than a hundred years ago, lived in a lone house called Chygwidden, about a mile inland from Parcurno. This comparatively modern story also accounts for the sand shifting, and has appropriated old traditions that had no connection therewith.
It relates that, long ago, Chygwidden was the chief dwelling-place of a family who flourished in St. Levan for a few generations and then all its branches became so reduced, through riotous living, as to be obliged to mortgage and sell much of their freehold lands.
The eldest and only son, by a former wife, of old Martin T——, who lived there, took to a seafaring life when about twenty, on account of cruel treatment received from his drunken father and a step-dame several years younger than himself. On leaving he vowed that he would never return whilst one lived who then darkened his father's doors.
Many years passed, and as no tidings had been received of young Martin, as he was still called, most persons believed him dead. In the meantime, his father, the step-dame, and her children, having all died within a few years of each other, a distant relative, as heir-at-law, had taken possession of what little property remained, and lived in Chygwidden.
Some ten years after the decease of all who had lived under old Martin's roof when his eldest son was driven thence, a large ship hove-to within a mile of Parcurno on a fine afternoon in harvest time.
People working in fields near the cliff noticed the unusual circumstance and saw a boat leave the ship with two men, who landed in Parcurno with several chests and other goods, and the ship proceeded on her course.
It was evident that one of those who came on shore was well acquainted with the place, as he struck at once into a pathway over the cliff which led, by a short cut, to Rospeltha where he
made himself known as young Martin T—— and procured horses and other help to take several heavy chests and bales to Chygwidden.
There was great rejoicing when it was known that the wanderer had at length returned to claim his own. His kinsfolks—a young man and his sister Eleanor, a damsel in her teens—were ready to resign possession, but Martin then cared little for house or land, and told them to keep the place and welcome, for all he desired was to have a home there for himself and his comrade whilst they remained, which he thought would only be for a short spell. His tastes had changed with change of scene. The place that he had once deemed the fairest on earth but then he had seen no more of it than was visible from the nearest high hill—now appeared dreary; and the people whom those of his own family excepted—he once thought the best in the world now seemed a forlorn set of consequential, grimly-religious nobodies to him, and above all to his mate, who, by-the-bye, requires more particular notice than we have yet bestowed on him.
Martin found the people, also, much altered from what they were in his youthful days, for about the time of his return a new sect had sprung up whose members, professing uncommon godliness, decried our ancient games and merry-makings, which were wont on holidays to unite all ages and classes. Their condemnation caused them to fall into disuse; and, on account of the censorious and intolerant spirit which then prevailed, there was much less heartiness and cordial intercourse amongst neighbours than formerly.
In a short time, however, Martin, now called by most persons "The Captain," became reconciled—one can't say attached—to his native place and the "humdrum West Country folks," as he styled them, who marvelled at his riches and the change which had taken place in his outward mien and manner. Yet the homely people's surprise at the alteration in Martin was nothing to their wonder, allied to fear, excited by his dusky companion or slave, for no one knew in what relation they stood to each other.
This stranger was seen to be a robust man, about thirty years of age apparently, with a swarthy complexion, many shades darker than the Captain's Spanish-mahogany tinted skin. Martin called this man José or mate and he rarely spoke a word of English (though he could when he pleased)or addressed anyone but Martin, with whom he always conversed in some outlandish lingo which seemed more natural to the Captain than his mother tongue. A tantalizing mystery shrouded the dark "outlander;" for his master or friend would never answer any queries respecting him. He was almost equally silent with regard to buccaneering or other adventures, and rarely spoke of anything that occurred either
at home or abroad during his absence. The two strange beings often came to high words and even to blows, but they would never allow anyone to meddle in their quarrels. When Martin was drunk and off his guard he would now and then ease his mind by swearing at his mate in plain English, or grumble at him in the same, to the effect that he had risked his life and spent a fortune to save him from being hanged at the yard-arm. "Discontented devil of a blackamoor," he would say, "why canst thou not be satisfied to live here? Thou art bound to me body and soul; and do I not indulge thee with everything gold can purchase?"
José would sometimes murmur "Avast there; all our gold and diamonds can't procure us here the bright sunshine and joyous people, nor the rich fruits and wine, of my native clime."
He seldom, however, made other reply than by gloomy looks or fiery glances which soon recalled Martin to his senses. It was remarked that after these outbursts of passion he was for a long while like the humble slave of his mate.
The boat in which they landed was kept at Parcurno, except for short spells during stormy times of the year, when she was put into Penberth or Pargwartha for greater safety; and, weeks together, they would remain out at sea night and day till their provisions were used; then they would come in, their craft laden with fish, and this cargo was free to all-comers. Stormy weather seldom drove them to land; they seemed to delight in a tempest.
Before winter came they procured a good number of hounds, and great part of the hunting season was passed by them in coursing over all parts of the West Country. Often of winter's nights, people far away would be frightened by hearing or seeing these two wild-looking hunters and their dogs chasm over some lone moor, and they gave rise to many a story of Old Nick and his headless hounds.
When tired of the chase, weeks were often passed at a public-house in Buryan Church-town. Martin treated one and all and scattered gold around him like chaff. The tawny mate, however, at times restrained Martin's lavish expenditure, took charge of his money-chests, and refused him the keys.
José would occasionally condescend to express his wishes to Eleanor, who was mistress of the rare establishment. She understood and humoured the pair, who took pleasure in decking her in the richest stuffs and jewels that their chests contained or that money could procure, and she frequently stayed up alone best part of the night to await their return.
After being at home a year or so the Captain had a large half-decked boat built, and several rocks removed in Parcurno to make a safer place in which to moor her. They then took longer
trips, and were not seen in Chygwidden for months running. The two eccentric beings passed many years in this way, and held but little intercourse with their neighbours.
At length Martin perceived tokens of death, or what he took for such, and made his man swear that when he saw signs of near dissolution he would take him off to sea, let him die there, and send him to rest at the ocean's bottom. He also bound his kinsman by oath not to oppose his wishes, and invoked a curse on any one who would lay his dust beside the remains of those who had driven him to range the wide world like a vagabond.
They might have complied with his strange desires, but ere they could be carried out he died in a hammock, suspended in his bed-room.
Now there comes a mystery, that is not likely to be cleared up.
It was known that a coffin,—followed by the cousins, José, and the dogs, was taken to St. Levan Churchyard and buried near the ground in which Martin's family lie. But it was rumoured that the coffin merely contained earth to make weight.
The following night, however, the dark "outlander" had two chests conveyed to Parcurno, the largest of which was said to contain the remains of his friend, and the other money and valuables which belonged to himself. The chests placed on board the half-decked vessel, José and his favourite dog embarked, waited for the tide to rise, and put to sea; but no one remained at the cove to behold their departure, and no more was seen in the West of man, dog, or boat.
Eleanor disappeared on the funeral night and it was believed that she left with the stranger, who was scarcely a league to sea ere a tempest arose and continued with great fury for nearly a week; and, although it was in winter, the sky of nights was all ablaze with lightning and the days as dark as nights. During this storm Parcurno was choked with sand, and no boat could be kept there since.
The tempest had scarcely lulled when an apparition of Martin's craft would drive into Parcurno against wind and tide; oft-times she came in the dusk of evening, and, without stopping at the Cove, took her course up over the old caunce towards Chapel-Curno; thence she sailed away, her keel just skimming the ground, or many yards above it, as she passed over hill and dale till she arrived at Chygwidden.
The barque was generally shrouded in mist, and one could rarely get a glimpse of her deck on which the shadowy figures of two men, a woman, and a dog, were beheld now and then. This ship of the dead, with her ghostly crew, hovered over the town-place a moment, then bore away to a croft on the farm, and vanished near a rock where a large sum of foreign coins was disinterred
many years ago, so it is said. Of late the ghostly ship has not been known to have entered Parcurno, and on account of innovations recently effected there she may nevermore be seen in that ancient port.
It may be observed that traditions of phantom-ships sailing overland were common to many places near the Land's End with which no stories are connected; these appearances were merely supposed to forebode tempests and wrecks.
The few incidents which form the groundwork of the above legend occurred but little more than a century before it was related to me by an aged farm labourer of St. Levan; yet in that short space it has assumed such a mystic garb that the simple and true story can scarcely be perceived under its embellishments.