Piskey Led *

Siblyback lake, resevoir on Bodmin Moor

* Suitable for a bedtime story

John and William Bray were out on the moor, counting their grazing cattle that were roaming free for the season. It had been one of those winters, when the rain kept coming, the drains overflowed and the grass went squelch underfoot. Along the way the two men laughed together as they climbed hedges and jumped squirting springs and flooded lanes. Up on the moor this state of saturation was accentuated even more than in the villages. In late summer, the bogs were usually dried and stuffed full with peering reeds. In contrast, this year the bogs were filling up from the underground spilling springs, gullies, and miners' caverns. Beneath the earth and rock sat a hidden sea. Anyone who had business out in the marshes like John and David, had best tread with care on the stepping stones and firmer patches of ground poking up from the moor.

John could see a good amount of his black bellied cows, and as he came over a hill a herd of moorland horses galloped by. He threw his stick after them, urging them away from the water: but unbeknownst to William the horses belonged to the piskies. Tiny stirrups could just be seen plaited into the horses' manes. The stirrups twinkled like stars in the flapping manes as the horses ran off down the hill. Standing on a granite rock nearby was a ring of piskies, who had been about to mount their horses. The piskies stamped their boots in frustration and looked angrily about for the cause of their horses' sudden flight.

Whatever you do, you don't want to make a piskey angry, for they play tricks on those that displease them.

John had already begun to walk home, and William went to follow him, taking the safe path they knew so well, a safe path they took daily through the treacherous bog.

All of a sudden John sunk to his waist in the black, watery slime. He thought he would find a rock ledge to use as an anchor, as he usually did if he missed his footing in such a manner, but strangely there was nothing but more loose mud beneath him: mud, thick as treacle, slimy as syrup, a treacherous pond pudding. John couldn't move his legs, they were stuck fast. He tried to scissor kick free, but scissors don't cut mud. John had begun to feel truly mazed by his sudden predicament, confused and scared: he thought he would he be swallowed by the bog and found in a thousand years time, perfectly preserved, his farmer's hat still on his head, his farmer's boots still tightly laced.

Quick as a fairy's flash, William remembered the stout wooden stick he always carried with him on such journeys. He held it out across the bog and John began to wriggle his torso toward it. Scraping his fingers across the slimy, weedy surface was most unpleasant. All the while he felt as if the piskey huntsmen were hooting with laughter at their revenge on poor, muddy, mazed John.

Well, after much strain John managed to grab the stick. William heaved and William pulled - William's arms were tough as tin, hard as the oak trees he sawed for firewood each winter. Both of John's arms lay stretched across the surface - arms brawny from bale throwing, sturdy from stone walling, and he clamped them to the heavy stick. William pulled and John held fast and ... SQUELCH ...

John was winched out of the muddy bog. He slid along the surface, holding onto the stick for dear life, until he felt firmer land beneath his belly.

'Wasn't like that when I walked over mind, wasn't never bad as that, John.'

'I was piskey led, I tell 'ee, that's what it was.'

'Piskey nothing, you'm mazed by they, not led by they. Just a bit of mud John.'

'Stealing our horses they were. Have to keep a closer look on the cattle we've got up here from now on.'

'That as may be John, that as may be.'

'Luck as have it, I put my socks on inside out this morning....'

As William and John walked home across the moor, the latter cold and muddy but glad to be alive, they were watched by tens of tiny folk. Tiny folk hiding in the gorse bushes, behind the rocks, beneath the moor ferns. Tiny folk who may be watching you when you go for a walk on the moor...

You won't be able to walk John and William Bray's patch of moor mind; it's long drowned under Siblyback Lake. The piskies moved to the high moor - and one or two, just one or two, moved to St Cleer Downs. So if you feel yourself getting lost or mazed walking on the downs, just turn your pockets inside out and you'll be safe.

retold by Anna Chorlton

Ref. Baring Gould

  • Bodmin Moor - Moor Stories