A Cornish changeling


The holy well at Carn Euny, April 2019 (note the strips of cloth tied to the tree as votive offerings)

Further to my last posting on the Sennen fairies, some more fairy reflections, based upon my recent visit to west Cornwall.

This story of a fairy changeling is taken from Bottrell’s Hearthside Tales vol. 2 pp.200-205.  I’ve edited it down to the most important details. It’s set in an attractive area at the heart of Penwith in West Cornwall.  Carn Brea is the first and last hill in the county, with stunning views around the coast to the north, west and south; on a clear day you can see the Isles of Scilly thirty miles off Land’s End. Brea hamlet lies just west of the hill and Brea Vean (‘little Brea’) just a short distance to the north.  A mile or so east is Bartinney Hill, topped by an Iron Age hillfort; on its south-east slopes lies Carn Euny, the site of the ruined chapel and holy wells, as well as a very well-preserved Iron Age village.  Further west still lie Sancreed village and church.

Here’s Bottrell’s account:

The Brea Vean changeling

“Hence, one might descend to the famous Chapel Uny Well, situated between Chapel Carn Brea and Bartine hills; the one crowned with its ruined chapel and the other with a castle. At Chapel Uny will be found a copious spring of as clear water as was ever seen. The only remains that can be identified, as having belonged to its ancient chapel, are a few dressed stones near the well. These, from their shape, would seem to have formed part of an arched door or window…

The Holy Well is, however, the most celebrated object in this vicinity; a few years ago, it was resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May by scores of persons who had great faith in the virtue of its waters, which were considered very efficacious for curing most diseases incidental to childhood, and many ricketty babes are still bathed there at the stated times when the spring is believed to possess the most healing powers.  Belonging to this well and its neighbourhood there is a somewhat curious story, which we will relate just as it has often been told us by old people of the West Country.

A hundred years or more ago- one afternoon in harvest time- a woman called Jenny Trayer, who lived in Brea Vean (a little out-of-the-way place at the foot of Chapel Carn Brea) gave her baby suck, rocked it to sleep, then covered up the fire, turned down the brandis, placed fire-hook and furze-prong across the hearth for good luck, and, leaving the child alone, away she hastened over to Brea [for the celebration of the end of the harvest.  This went on very late and when Jenny returned home]  she opened her door, she saw, by the moonlight, that the cradle was overturned.  Straw and rags were on the floor, but no child was in sight.

Jenny groped round the room a long time; then, not finding any live embers among the ashes, she took the tinder-box and struck a light. “The more haste the worst speed.” It was a long time before she got the porvan (rush-wick) lit in the chill (iron lamp). In searching all the holes and corners, she came to the wood-corner and there among turves, ferns, and furze, she found the “cheeld,” fast asleep. Being very tired, she took up the child and went to bed. Next morning, when she looked at the babe, by daylight, it seemed to her that there was something strange about it—she didn’t know what—it was hearty enough, for it seemed never satisfied unless it was all the time sucking or eating it would roar like a bull if it hadn’t its will; and always wanted to be in her arms or eating pap.

The poor woman couldn’t do her “chars,” and had no rest of her life with the squalling, hungry brat. Yet, with all its sucking and eating, it seemed wasting to skin and bone. So it kept on all the winter—the more it ate the leaner it became. Many of the neighbours shook their heads when they saw it, and said they feared the “small people” had played her a trick that afternoon when she went to “neck-cutting.”

“Whether or no,” said they, “you can do nothing better, Jenny, than to bathe it in the Chapel Well as soon as May comes around.”

Accordingly, the first Wednesday in May she took it on her back and trudged away to Chapel Uny Well.  Three times she put it through the water from west to east, then dragged it three times round the well against the sun. Whether the bath made it any better or not she couldn’t tell in one week. The following Wednesday, however, the troublesome creature seemed to expect the jaunt, and to enjoy it as it rode away on her shoulder over hill and moor to the spring, where it had the same ducking again. The third Wednesday was a wet day; yet, not to spoil the spell, Jenny took the brat, placed it astride on her shoulder, held one foot in her hand, whilst he grasped her hair to keep himself steady, as they beat over the moors against wind and rain. The thing seemed to enjoy the storm, and crowed, like a cock, when the wind roared the loudest.

They had nearly passed round Chapel Carn Brea and were coming by some large rocks, near the open moor, when she heard a shrill voice, seemingly above her head, call out-

“Tredrill! Tredrill!  Thy wife and children greet thee well.”

Jenny was surprised to hear the shrill voice and nobody in sight. When she stopped an instant to look round, the thing on her shoulder cried out in a voice as shrill and loud-

“What care I for wife or child,
When I ride on Dowdy’s back to the Chapel Well,
And have got pap my fill?”

Frightened out of her senses, to hear the miserable little object talk like a man about his wife and his child, the poor woman cast it on the ground and there it lay sprawling, until she took courage, threw it across her shoulder, and ran back as fast as she could lay feet to ground till she came to Brea town. She stopped before some houses a little below Brea mansion, threw down the thing, that clung to her neck for dear life, on to a dung-heap beside the road.

The women of Brea all ran out to see what could be the matter. As soon as she recovered her breath, she told them what she had heard. “Ah,” exclaimed one, “didn’t I tell thee, months ago, that thee wert nussan a small body’s brat, ever since the neck-cuttan night, when thy child was spirited away, and that thing left in his place.”

“Shure enow,” said another, “anybody of common sense might see that. Only look at the thing there, sprawling upon his back in the mud. Did one ever see a Christian cheeld like that, with his goggle eyes, squinting one way; his ugly mouth drawn another, and his pinched-up nose all a-wry too?”

“And now, Jenny,” broke in the oldest crone, “’Tis lucky for ’e that I can tell ’e what you must do to get rid of this unlucky bucca [that is, a ‘puck’ or fairy], and get back thy own dear cheeld. Now there’s an old way, and I don’t know but it es the best; and that es to put the smale body upon the ashes’ pile and beat it well with a broom; then lay it naked under a church-way stile; there leave et, and keep out of sight and hearan till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place. There’s another plan but I never seed et tried—to make by night a smoky fire, with green ferns and dry. When the chimney and house are full of smoke as one can bear, throw the changeling on the hearth-stone; go out of the house; turn three times round; when one enters the right cheeld will be restored.”

The women of Brea- resolved to try what a beating on the ashes’ pile would do towards getting rid of the goblin- threw it on a heap near at hand and commenced belabouring it with their brooms. But they had scarcely touched it than it set up such a roar that it was heard in Brea mansion.  [The local landowner’s wife came and tried to stop them but the village women had little regard for their opinions as they were Quakers]

“who haven’t the grace,” said they, “to know anything about such creatures as spriggans, piskies, knackers (knockers of the mines) and other small folks, good or bad, that haunt our carns, moors, and mines; who can vanish or make themselves visible when and how they please, as all more enlightened folks know.”

The Brea women, in spite of the “unbelieving Quakers,” … determined to have their own way and waited till all was dark in the great house; then Jenny, with the bantling or spriggan, and another woman, who was very knowing about changelings, passed quietly up Brea town-place, and under a stile on the Church-way path crossing a field from Brea lane, they left the creature (then asleep) that had been such a plague to them.

Jenny returned to Brea Vean, and there stayed till morning. Being fatigued and worried she overslept herself, for it was nearly daybreak when she awoke and hurried away, between hopes and fears, to the stile; and there, sure enough, she found her own “dear cheeld,” sleeping on some dry straw. The infant was as clean, from head to foot, as water could make it, and wrapped up in a piece of old gay-flowered chintz; which small folks often covet and steal from furze-bushes, when it is placed there in the sun to dry.

Jenny nursed her recovered child with great care, but there was always something queer about it, as there always is about one that has been in the fairies’ power—if only for a few days. It was constantly ailing and complaining, and, as soon as it was able to toddle, it would wander far away to all sorts of out-of-the-way places… when he was about nine years of age the Squire took the changeling (as he was always called) into his service, but he was found to be such a poor simple innocent that he could never be trusted to work in the fields alone, much less with cattle, as a whim would take him, every now and then, to leave his work and wander away over hills and moors for days together. Yet he was found useful for attending to rearing cattle and sheep—then kept in great numbers on the unenclosed grounds of Brea. He was so careful of his master’s flock in lambing time that there was seldom any lost. Forsaken or weakly lambs were often given to him by the neighbours, and he contrived to rear them so well that, in a few years, he had a good flock of his own…

When he grew to man’s estate, however, he became subject to fits, and had to remain at home with his mother great part of his time. Yet, when the fits were over, nothing could restrain his propensity for wandering, and his sheep, goats, and even calves, always followed, and seemed equally to enjoy their rambles. He often talked to himself, and many believed that he was then holding converse with some of the fairy tribe, only visible to him, who enticed him to ramble among the earns, hills, and moors- their usual haunts.

When about thirty years of age he was missed for several days; and his flock had been noticed, staying longer than usual near the same place, on a moor between the Chapel Hill and Bartinné, and there- surrounded by his sheep- he was found, lying on a quantity of rushes which he had pulled and collected for making sheep-spans.  He lay, with his arm under his head, apparently in sweet sleep, but the poor changeling of Brea was dead.”


Sancreed holy well, April 2019.  The glimmer inside is a night light candle we found on a ledge, along with a joss stick; note again the strips of cloth on the branches above.

The fairy well

I have written before about the magical properties of fairy wells, and several other accounts confirm the healing qualities of the Carn Euny well:

“Hither, on the first Wednesday in May, are still annually brought crippled or maimed children. At that period a bath is formed in front of the well by stopping up the course of the little stream with pieces of turf. Each child is stripped, and then made to drop a pin into the well itself, previously to being immersed three times in the bath. My informant, a native of the parish, told me that he had hardly, if ever, known the process to fail in giving relief. He also told me that the well was sometimes called the Giant’s Well- a title that seems inconsistent with the attribution of such great virtues.” (J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, 1861).

Another account, from the mid-eighteenth century, states that:

“as a witness of its having done remarkable cures, it has a chapel adjoining to it, dedicated to St. Eunius, the ruins of which, consisting of much carved stone, bespeak it to have been formerly of no little note. The water has the reputation of drying humours as well as healing wounds…

The common people (of this as well as other countries) will not be content to attribute the benefit they receive to ordinary means; there must be something marvellous in all their cures. I happened, luckily, to be at this well upon the last day of the year, on which, according to vulgar opinion, it exerts its principal and most salutary powers. Two women were here who came from a neighbouring parish, and were busily employed in bathing a child. They both assured me that people who had a mind to receive any benefit from St. Euny’s well, must come and wash upon the first three Wednesdays in May. But to leave folly to its own delusion, it is certainly very gracious in Providence to distribute a remedy for so many disorders in a quality so universally found as cold is in every unmixed well water.” (William Borlase, Natural History of Cornwall, 1757, p.31)

Dr. Paris, in his Guide to Mount’s Bay, p.82, recorded that the water of the well was supposed to possess many miraculous virtues, especially in infantile mesenteric disease. Poorly children were dipped on the three first Wednesdays in May, and drawn through the pool three times against the sun and three times on the surrounding grass in the same direction.

Whatever the well’s properties, you’ll note that in this case the mother had to resort to far more unpleasant means to get rid of the changeling: he’s beaten (by all the local women) and then exposed, which was far from unusual (mis)treatment.  It’s also worthwhile emphasising the human boy’s physical and mental condition after his return from faery: he’s never well and he dies young, neither of which are unusual.

Gotch, Thomas Cooper, 1854-1931; A Golden Dream

A golden dream, Thomas Cooper Gotch

Sancreed well

The church of the parish here is that of Sancreed, which is just over two miles from Brea.  There too are the remains of an ancient chapel and a holy well (see above photo)- perhaps one of the largest and most impressive in Cornwall.  The church itself is an attractive building, but it is most notable for the fact that there are five Celtic crosses in the churchyard and because it is the resting place of several famous artists from the Newlyn school of painting.  Just to the south of the church are the graves of painters Stanhope Forbes, his wife Elizabeth Forbes and Thomas Cooper Gotch.  Whilst Stanhope Forbes mainly painted plein air scenes of Cornish farming and fishing life, his wife and Gotch both tended to prefer more mystical or mythical scenes.

Forbes-Green-Knight (2).jpg

Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, The green knight, from ‘King Arthur’s Wood.’

Further reading

A much longer and more detailed discussion of changelings and of the effects of fairy contact will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.  See too chapter 16 of my British Fairies (2017).



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