Celtic Myth & legend

The Faeries of the Cornish Tin Mines – Cousin Jack and the TommyKnockers

Cornwall coastal mine

The tin mines of Cornwall have an ancient history that extends back into the mists of time.  Cornish trade links with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, which pre-date the arrival of the Romans in Britain, are documented by Greek historians.  Around 2500 BC a trade started growing in tin and copper with these foreign traders exchanging bronze tools and gold ornaments for the minerals.

Faery faith and folklore has enjoyed a central role in the foundation and development of Celtic culture and Celtic Cornwall has many myths and legends involving Faeries which include a particularly Cornish variant in the form of the Faeries of the tin mines. These strange subterranean residents of Cornish mines are known by various names, one of the most common being Knockers (TommyKnockers). Over the centuries the legends surrounding these creatures became imbedded in the folklore and Faery faith of the Celtic miners to a remarkable degree. These folkloric traditions then followed the Cornish immigrants as they fanned out as prized mine workers around the world.

The Mystery of Scotland’s Flannan Isles Lighthouse

Lighthouse on Eilean Mor, Flannan Isles

Na h-Eileanan Flannach is the Scottish Gaelic name of the small group of islands known in English as the Flannan Isles, located in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar). Also known as the Seven Hunters they stand just over 20 miles (32 kilometres) from the Isle of Lewis (Leòdhas ). They are a bird sanctuary and at times a place of beauty. At others these remote islands bear the brunt of severe Atlantic storms, which whip the seas into frenzy and force even the hardy gulls to stay sheltered in the cliff face crags. For many years they have remained uninhabited, the last residents of any length being the lighthouse keepers, who between 1899 and its automation in 1971, kept the light burning on the highest point of the island group, Eilean Mòr.

Until the lighthouse had been built between 1895 and 1899 it is probable that Na h-Eileanan Flannach had not been inhabited permanently since the days of the Celtic Church. The Celtic Church was predominant across the Celtic speaking world in the early middle ages (5th to the 10th century). On the island of Eilean Mòr is the ruin of an old chapel dedicated to St Flannan. However, over many centuries for many of the Gaelic Hebridean community the islands have been viewed as a place of superstition and bad luck. A view that was reinforced by the tragic and mysterious events that befell the lighthouse keepers on Eilean Mòr in mid-December 1900.

It is the fate of the lighthouse keepers in 1900; just over one year after the island’s lighthouse came into operation that is the cause of much mystery and speculation. For all three keepers, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald Macarthur disappeared without trace. It was on 15th December 1900 that the ship Archtor which was sailing for Scotland from Philadelphia had reported that as they passed the islands the lighthouse was not in operation. In those days there was no radio communication between the keepers on Eilean Mòr  and the shore station of Breasclete on Lewis. When the lighthouse tender Hesperus arrived on St Stephen’s Day (26th December) 1900 having been delayed due to adverse conditions, they found the lighthouse abandoned.

Angelystor, the Old Yew Tree and the Grim Prophesy

Map of Celtic tribes of pre-Roman Britain from coin evidence

In the village of Llangernyw, in Conwy County Borough (Welsh: Bwrdeistref Sirol Conwy) in the north of Wales stands the church of St Digain. It takes its name from the fifth century Welsh Saint Digain. Digain was said to be a Prince of Dumnonia, the Celtic Kingdom of the Cornish. Digain ap Constantine was the son of King Constantine of Dumnonia. The name of this village confirms the Cornish connection for the name Llangernyw means “the church of the Cornishman”. However, ancient though the church is, it stands on a site that held spiritual meaning to the Celts long before the arrival of the Church or Christianity.

In the churchyard of the St Digain’s church stands an old Yew Tree estimated to be over 4000 years old. Yew (Taxus baccata) is a very old tree species. Renowned for its longevity, ability to survive extreme climate change and to renew itself. Yew has the unique ability to grow new trunks from the original root. It is little wonder that it was revered by the Celts. Seen by them to represent rebirth, transformation and immortality. In particular the Celts viewed the Yew as one of a number of portals to the Otherworld; that mystical land where their ancestors and gods of the pre-Christian Celtic pantheon reside.

Nain - Protector of the ancient Celtic monuments of Brittany

Dolmen in Brittany

An entity steeped within the ancient Celtic folklore of Brittany that bears the name Nain. They haunt the ancient dolmens erected by the ancestors of our Celtic peoples that live in the land of Brittany. They are described as having hooved feet, clawed hands and wings sprouting from their shoulders. Their faces are demon like with horns upon their head and their eyes are a glowing red. Dancing around the ancient stones and monoliths of Brittany they chant out the days of the week ‘dilun, dimerzh, dimerc'her, diyaou, digwener',  but not the days of ‘disadorn and disul’  for these two days are held as sacred to the fairies. The night of ‘dimerc'her’ is their special night though, particularly the first one of the month of May.

It was the Nain who inscribed the ancient monuments of Gavr'inis where it is said they wrote of the secret location of their treasure. For the Nain minted gold; but the coins would turn to the dead leafs of trees if humans tried to use it. Not that humans would willingly have any contact with the Nain. Legend tells us that should humans come into the domain of the Nain; the stone circles, cairns and ancient monuments of Brittany, in particular when they are holding their sacred ceremonies, ill fortune will follow. Should a human attempt to join in with dances and ceremonies of the Nain then there is nothing surer than that death will follow.

Tuatha Dé Danann

The Tuatha Dé Danann forms a significant feature in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology. They are Celtic pre-Christian gods with supernatural ability and were of great importance to Gaelic people. They belong to the Otherworld (Aos Si) community whose world was reached through mists, hills, lakes, ponds, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds.  Their association with ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds is probably linked to the importance these sites had for the people of pre-history. They were places of communal interment for the ancestors of the Celts of northwest Europe who are descended from the native Neolithic peoples of these lands. Their story was passed on for many centuries in oral tradition. Many of these legends were recorded in a collection of poems and texts, some dating from the third century AD, and compiled in the eleventh century by Christian scholars in such works as the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann known in English as The Book of Invasions.

The name Tuatha Dé is thought to derive from old Irish Gaelic meaning ‘people of the gods’. The word ‘Danaan’ seems then to have been added later by Christian scribes. This was thought to be in order to differentiate the Tuatha Dé (people of the gods) known to the Gaels of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man as part of their own pantheon, from the Israelites (people of god) highlighted in Christian teaching. The word Danaan is believed to come from old Gaelic literature; Dana being a Celtic female figure and goddess. The idea of waves of ‘invasions’ into Ireland was also probably further developed in an attempt by monastic scholars to create a history of Ireland that would also suggest some kind of link to one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Bugul Noz on Halloween Night in Brittany

Bug Noz

Though hideous in appearance, he was benevolent in nature. The Bugul Noz roamed the woodlands of his native Brittany. Sometimes known as ‘Night Shepherd’ because of the care he took of the animals of the forest. On this cold crisp Halloween night of 31 October he felt strangely secure. This was the night; the only night really, that he could show himself in public. The throngs of people that went to fancy dress parties on this night of Halloween (Kalan Goañv); the old Celtic New Year, made it easy for him. Dressed as they were in grotesque costumes, they vied to see who could look the most frightening. Fake blood, fangs, dyed hair, make up, masks, shrouds; the more outlandish, deathlike and appalling the dress, the more admired by everyone. Yes-this was the night that Bugul Noz could feel comfortable with his own appearance. Because the people he met did not know that this ugly looking creature was entirely natural. Bugul Noz did not need a costume and make-up in order to scare people.

Arriving at the edge of the village Bugul Noz breathed in the cold, crisp air. Mist swirled just above the ground creating a grey velvet like carpet. A perfect Brittany night in autumn, full of the magic and mystery that filled the air of his Celtic homeland. ‘Brittany’ he thought and sighed with pleasure. Proud, distinct, unique and despite the efforts of many over the years, independent in mind and spirit. Cursed as he was to roam this land without being able to show his face, Bugul Noz could not survive outside of his beloved Brittany. Although repugnant in appearance to his fellow Bretons, he was nevertheless one of them.

Bugul Noz felt as ancient as the earth on which he walked. Some of the trees in the old woodlands in which he lived he remembered as just saplings many years ago. Was there a time that he did not feel lonely? Maybe, but if there was he could no longer remember it.  Sometimes he would meet ‘Ankou’. Tall and wearing a long dark coat, a wide brimmed hat and carrying a scythe over his shoulder, the skeletal Ankou is a collector of the souls of the dead in Brittany.  They would greet each other but Ankou was always very busy, even with his two skeleton helpers who assisted in loading the souls of the dead into a rickety cart drawn by black horses. 

Nos Calan Gwaf - the Cornish Halloween

Merry Maidens stone circle on Halloween night

In Kernow, the time of Halloween or Samhain, is known as Nos Calan Gwaf and is widely celebrated. Popularly linked to St Allen or Arlan a little known Cornish Saint, it is also known as Allan day.

A 19th century account informs that:

the shops in Penzance would display Allan apples, which were highly polished large apples. On the day itself, these apples were given as gifts to each member of the family as a token of good luck. Older girls would place these apples under their pillows and hope to dream of the person whom they would one day marry. A local game is also recorded where two pieces of wood were nailed together in the shape of a cross. It was then suspended with 4 candles on each outcrop of the cross shape. Allan apples would then be suspended under the cross. The goal of the game was to catch the apples in your mouth, with hot wax being the penalty for slowness or inaccuracy.

With a substantial Pagan community in Cornwall, the age old, pre-Christian rites are commonly observed. In a short story written by My Ha’m Ros, a Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, many of the traditions of the season are recorded.

Derry Hosts Ireland's Largest Halloween Festival – Honours the Celtic Feast Day of Samhain

Skeleton costume at Derry Halloween party

The Ulster City of Derry (Doire), City of Culture 2013, is to host a massive Halloween party from 26 October through 3 November. The event, which is billed as the “Carnival on the Foyle” and named after the river that runs through the city, includes a Carnival Parade and a “Shapeshifters Ball” held in Derry’s historic Guildhall. The Shapeshifters Ball will be held on Halloween, which is the modern name for the pre-Christian Celtic feast day of Samhain. Celtic Myth surrounding Samhain (Halloween) includes many tales of Shape Shifting Fairies who emerge at Halloween when the door to the Otherworld opens.

Samhain has survived, flourished and conquered the modern psyche. The ancient Celtic holiday was the start of the Celtic New Year. This is when the Druids lit bonfires marking a period of great danger to mortal souls. The bonfires were a warning that the laws of nature were suspended and the barriers between the natural order of things and the Celtic Underworld were dissolved, when the Underworld became visible to the living and the Fairies and the Dead would come forth.

On Samhain ordinary folk were highly vulnerable to being kidnapped by Fairies and taken to the Underworld and it was ill advised to go near the many "Fairie Mounds" which are said to have dotted the Celtic countryside. The tradition of “dressing up” at Halloween was a ruse to hide one’s true identity from the Fairies and thus escape abduction.

Countdown to Halloween: The Celtic New Year

Halloween pumpkin

Halloween is a Celtic festival celebrated on the night of 31st October and 1st November every year. In the six Celtic Nations of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, Halloween marks the end of the summer and the beginning of winter. The festival is associated with the Celtic feast of Kala-Goañv (Breton), Calan Gwaf (Cornish), Samhain (Irish), Sauin (Manx Gaelic), Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) and Calan Gaeaf (Welsh). Entirely pagan in origin, Halloween was traditionally a time of year when the worlds of the living and the dead were seen to be at their closest. It is a time when the creatures of the 'Otherworld' make their presence known to the people of 'this world'.

Halloween is now a globally celebrated festival, particularly in the 'New World' where its traditions were brought by waves of Celtic emigration. The lanterns, fires, costumes and belief in the supernatural remain deeply rooted in Celtic culture and tradition. Although called Halloween in most places, on Isle of Man it is more usually known as 'Hop-tu-Naa'.

In the build-up to this year’s festival of Halloween, Transceltic brings a selection of stories, spooky tales and memories from around the world. New features will appear every week from now until Halloween Eve.

In the meantime, here are the Halloween features from last year:

Cornwall - Land of the Saints’ or perhaps not?

No one believes in Piskies, do they?

Well, it pays to be careful in Cornwall so those that know keep quiet.

Piskies are tiny people, barely a foot high and dressed in greens and russets and reds.

They tease and they trick and are full of mischief and laughter. They are thought to be the spirits of the banished original Cornish people who were driven to the hills when the Iberians came.

There are many strange stories of long ago when Cornish folk saw the ‘little people’ and their moonlight revels in the towans – sand dunes.


Subscribe to Celtic Myth & legend