Legends Of St. Piran by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature


Should you visit the Blackmore tin-streamers on their feast-day, which falls on Friday-in-Lide (that is to say, the first Friday in March), you may note a truly Celtic ceremony. On that day the tinners pick out the sleepiest boy in the neighbourhood and send him up to the highest bound in the works, with instructions to sleep there as long as he can. And by immemorial usage the length of his nap will be the measure of the tinners’ afternoon siesta for twelve months to come.

Now, this first week in March is St. Piran’s week: and St. Piran is the miners’ saint. To him the Cornishmen owe not only their tin, which he discovered on the spot, but also their divine laziness, which he brought across from Ireland and naturalised here. And I learned his story one day from an old miner, as we ate our bread and cheese together on the floor of Wheal Tregobbin, while the Davy lamp between us made wavering giants of our shadows on the walls of the adit, and the sea moaned as it tossed on its bed, two hundred feet above.

* * * * *

St. Piran was a little round man; and in the beginning he dwelt on the north coast of Ireland, in a leafy mill, past which a stream came tumbling down to the sea. After turning the saint’s mill-wheel, the stream dived over a fall into the Lough below, and the lul-ul-ur-r-r of the water-wheel and fall was a sleepy music in the saint’s ear noon and night.

It must not be imagined that the mill-wheel ground anything. No; it went round merely for the sake of its music. For all St. Piran’s business was the study of objects that presented themselves to his notice, or, as he called it, the “Rapture av Contemplation”; and as for his livelihood, he earned it in the simplest way. The waters of the Lough below possessed a peculiar virtue. You had only to sink a log or stick therein, and in fifty years’ time that log or stick would be turned to stone. St. Piran was as quick as you are to divine the possibilities of easy competence offered by this spot. He took time by the forelock, and in half a century was fairly started in business. Henceforward he passed all his days among the rocks above the fall, whistling to himself while he whittled bits of cork and wood into quaint shapes, attached them to string, weighted them with pebbles, and lowered them over the fall into the Lough–whence, after fifty years he would draw them forth, and sell them to the simple surrounding peasantry at two hundred and fifty per centum per annum on the initial cost.

It was a tranquil, lucrative employment, and had he stuck to the Rapture of Contemplation, he might have ended his days by the fall. But in an unlucky hour he undertook to feed ten Irish kings and their armies for three weeks anend on three cows. Even so he might have escaped, had he only failed. Alas! As it was, the ten kings had no sooner signed peace and drunk together than they marched up to St. Piran’s door, and began to hold an Indignation Meeting.

“What’s ailing wid ye, then?” asked the saint, poking his head out at the door; “out wid ut! Did I not stuff ye wid cow-mate galore when the land was as nakud as me tonshure? But ’twas three cows an’ a miracle wasted, I’m thinkin’.”

“Faith, an’ ye’ve said ut!” answered one of the kings. “Three cows between tin Oirish kings! ‘Tis insultin’! Arrah, now, make it foive, St. Piran darlint!”

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“Now may they make your stummucks ache for that word, ye marautherin’ thieves av the world!”

And St. Piran slammed the door in their faces.

But these kings were Ulstermen, and took things seriously. So they went off and stirred up the people: and the end was that one sunshiny morning a dirty rabble marched up to the mill and laid hands on the saint. On what charge, do you think? Why, for Being without Visible Means of Support!

“There’s me pethrifyin’ spicimins!” cried the saint: and he tugged at one of the ropes that stretched down into the Lough.

“Indade!” answered one of the ten kings: “Bad luck to your spicimins!” says he.

“Fwhat’s that ye’re tuggin.’ at?” asks a bystander.

“Now the Holy Mother presarve your eyesight, Tim Coolin,” answers St. Piran, pulling it in, “if ye can’t tell a plain millstone at foive paces! I never asked ye to see through ut,” he added, with a twinkle, for Tim had a plentiful lack of brains, and that the company knew.

Sure enough it was a millstone, and a very neat one; and the saint, having raised a bit of a laugh, went on like a cheap-jack:

“Av there’s any gintleman prisunt wid an eye for millstones, I’ll throuble him to turn ut here. Me own make,” says he, “jooled in wan hole, an’ dog-chape at fifteen shillin’–“

He was rattling away in this style when somebody called out, “To think av a millstone bein’ a visible means av support!” And this time the laugh turned against the saint.

“St. Piran dear, ye’ve got to die,” says the spokesman.

“Musha, musha!”–and the saint set up a wail and wrung his hands. “An’ how’s it goin’ to be?” he asked, breaking off; “an’ if ’tis by Shamus O’Neil’s blunderbust that he’s fumblin’ yondther, will I stand afore or ahint ut? for ’tis fatal both ends, I’m thinkin’, like Barney Sullivan’s mule. Wirra, wirra! May our souls find mercy, Shamus O’Neil, for we’ll both, be wantin’ ut this day. Better for you, Shamus, that this millstone was hung round your black neck, an’ you drownin’ in the dept’s av the Lough!”

The words were not spoken before they all set up a shout. “The millstone! the millstone!” “Sthrap him to ut!” “He’s named his death!”–and inside of three minutes there was the saint, strapped down on his own specimen.

“Wirra, wirra!” he cried, and begged for mercy; but they raised a devastating shindy, and gave the stone a trundle. Down the turf it rolled and rolled, and then whoo! leaped over the edge of the fall into space and down–down–till it smote the waters far below, and knocked a mighty hole in them, and went under–

For three seconds only. The next thing that the rabble saw as they craned over the cliff was St. Piran floating quietly out to sea on the millstone, for all the world as if on a life-belt, and untying his bonds to use for a fishing-line! You see, this millstone had been made of cork originally, and was only half petrified; and the old boy had just beguiled them. When he had finished undoing the cords, he stood up and bowed to them all very politely.

“Visible Manes av Support, me childher–merely Visible Manes av Support!” he called back.

‘Twas a sunshiny day, and while St. Piran chuckled the sea twinkled all over with the jest. As for the crowd on the cliff, it looked for five minutes as if the saint had petrified them harder than the millstone. Then, as Tim Coolin told his wife, Mary Dogherty, that same evening, they dispersed promiscuously in groups of one each.

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Meanwhile, the tides were bearing St. Piran and his millstone out into the Atlantic, and he whiffed for mackerel all the way. And on the morrow a stiff breeze sprang up and blew him sou’-sou-west until he spied land; and so he stepped ashore on the Cornish coast.

In Cornwall he lived many years till he died: and to this day there are three places named after him–Perranaworthal, Perranuthno and Perranzabuloe. But it was in the last named that he took most delight, because at Perranzabuloe (Perochia Sti. Pirani in Sabulo) there was nothing but sand to distract him from the Study of Objects that Presented Themselves to his Notice: for he had given up miracles. So he sat on the sands and taught the Cornish people how to be idle. Also he discovered tin for them; but that was an accident.


A full fifty years had St. Piran dwelt among the sandhills between Perranzabuloe and the sea before any big rush of saints began to pour into Cornwall: for ’twas not till the old man had discovered tin for us that they sprang up thick as blackberries all over the county; so that in a way St. Piran had only himself to blame when his idle ways grew to be a scandal by comparison with the push and bustle of the newcomers.

Never a notion had he that, from Rome to Land’s End, all his holy brethren were holding up their hands over his case. He sat in his cottage above the sands at Perranzabuloe and dozed to the hum of the breakers, in charity with all his parishioners, to whom his money was large as the salt wind; for his sleeping partnership in the tin-streaming business brought him a tidy income. And the folk knew that if ever they wanted religion, they had only to knock and ask for it.

But one fine morning, an hour before noon, the whole parish sprang to its feet at the sound of a horn. The blast was twice repeated, and came from the little cottage across the sands.

“‘Tis the blessed saint’s cow-horn!” they told each other. “Sure the dear man must be in the article of death!” And they hurried off to the cottage, man, woman, and child: for ’twas thirty years at least since the horn had last been sounded.

They pushed open the door, and there sat St. Piran in his arm-chair, looking good for another twenty years, but considerably flustered. His cheeks were red, and his fingers clutched the cow-horn nervously.

“Andrew Penhaligon,” said he to the first man that entered, “go you out and ring the church bell.”

Off ran Andrew Penhaligon. “But, blessed father of us,” said one or two, “we’re all here! There’s no call to ring the church bell, seem’ you’re neither dead nor afire, blessamercy!”

“Oh, if you’re all here, that alters the case; for ’tis only a proclamation I have to give out at present. To-morrow mornin’–Glory be to God!–I give warnin’ that Divine service will take place in the parish church.”

“You’re sartin you bain’t feelin’ poorly, St. Piran dear?” asked one of the women.

“Thank you, Tidy Mennear, I’m enjoyin’ health. But, as I was sayin’, the parish church ‘ll be needed to-morrow, an’ so you’d best set to and clean out the edifice: for I’m thinkin’,” he added, “it’ll be needin’ that.”

“To be sure, St. Piran dear, we’ll humour ye.”

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“‘Tisn’ that at all,” the saint answered; “but I’ve had a vision.”

“Don’t you often?”

“H’m! but this was a peculiar vision; or maybe a bit of a birdeen whispered it into my ear. Anyway, ’twas revealed to me just now in a dream that I stood on the lawn at Bodmin Priory, and peeped in at the Priory window. An’ there in the long hall sat all the saints together at a big table covered with red baize and plotted against us. There was St. Petroc in the chair, with St. Guron by his side, an’ St. Neot, St. Udy, St. Teath, St. Keverne, St. Wen, St. Probus, St. Enodar, St. Just, St. Fimbarrus, St. Clether, St. Germoe, St. Veryan, St. Winnock, St. Minver, St. Anthony, with the virgins Grace, and Sinara, and Iva–the whole passel of ’em. An’ they were agreein’ there was no holiness left in this parish of mine; an’ speakin’ shame of me, my childer–of me, that have banked your consciences these fifty years, and always been able to pay on demand: the more by token that I kept a big reserve, an’ you knew it. Answer me: when was there ever a panic in Perranzabuloe? ”Twas all very well,’ said St. Neot, when his turn came to speak, ‘but this state o’ things ought to be exposed.’ He’s as big as bull’s beef, is St. Neot, ever since he worked that miracle over the fishes, an’ reckons he can disparage an old man who was makin’ millstones to float when he was suckin’ a coral. But the upshot is, they’re goin’ to pay us a Visitation to-morrow, by surprise. And, if only for the parish credit, we’ll be even wid um, by dad!”

St. Piran still lapsed into his native brogue when strongly excited.

But he had hardly done when Andrew Penhaligon came running in–

“St. Piran, honey, I’ve searched everywhere; an’ be hanged to me if I can find the church at all!”

“Fwhat’s become av ut?” cried the saint, sitting up sharply.

“How should I know? But devil a trace can I see!”

“Now, look here,” St. Piran said; “the church was there, right enough.”

“That’s a true word,” spoke up an old man, “for I mind it well. An elegant tower it had, an’ a shingle roof.”

“Spake up, now,” said the saint, glaring around; “fwich av ye’s gone an’ misbestowed me parush church? For I won’t believe,” he said, “that it’s any worse than carelussness–at laste, not yet-a-bit.”

Some remembered the church, and some did not: but the faces of all were clear of guilt. They trooped out on the sands to search.

Now, the sands by Perranzabuloe are for ever shifting and driving before the northerly and nor’-westerly gales; and in time had heaped themselves up and covered the building out of sight. To guess this took the saint less time than you can wink your eye in; but the bother was that no one remembered exactly where the church, had stood, and as there were two score at least of tall mounds along the shore, and all of pretty equal height, there was no knowing where to dig. To uncover them all was a job to last till doomsday.

“Blur-an’-agurs, but it’s ruined I am!” cried St. Piran. “An’ the Visitashun no further away than to-morra at tin a.m.!” He wrung his hands, then caught up a spade, and began digging like a madman.

They searched all day, and with lanterns all the night through: they searched from Ligger Point to Porth Towan: but came on never a sign of the missing church.

“If it only had a spire,” one said, “there’d be some chance.” But as far as could be recollected, the building had a dumpy tower.

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“Once caught, twice shy,” said another; “let us find it this once, an’ next time we’ll have landmarks to dig it out by.”

It was at sunrise that St. Piran, worn-out and heart-sick, let fall his spade and spoke from one of the tall mounds, where he had been digging for an hour.

“My children,” he began, and the men uncovered their heads, “my children, we are going to be disgraced this day, and the best we can do is to pray that we may take it like men. Let us pray.”

He knelt down on the great sand-hill, and the men and women around dropped on their knees also. And then St. Piran put up the prayer that has made his name famous all the world over.


Harr us, O Lord, and be debonair: for ours is a particular case. We are not like the men of St. Neot or the men of St. Udy, who are for ever importuning Thee upon the least occasion, praying at all hours and every day of the week. Thou knowest it is only with extreme cause that we bring ourselves to trouble Thee. Therefore regard our moderation in time past, and be instant to help us now. Amen.

There was silence for a full minute as he ceased; and then the kneeling parishioners lifted their eyes towards the top of the mound.

St. Piran was nowhere to be seen!

They stared into each other’s faces. For a while not a sound was uttered. Then a woman began to sob–

“We’ve lost ‘en! We’ve lost ‘en!”

“Like Enoch, he’s been taken!”

“Taken up in a chariot an’ horses o’ fire. Did any see ‘en go?”

“An’ what’ll we do without ‘en? Holy St. Piran, come back to us!”

“Hullo! hush a bit an’ hearken!” cried Andrew Penhaligon, lifting a hand.

They were silent, and listening as he commanded, heard a muffled voice and a faint, calling as it were from the bowels of the earth.

“Fetch a ladder!” it said: “fetch a ladder! It’s meself that’s found ut, glory be to God! Holy queen av heaven! but me mouth is full av sand, an’ it’s burstin’ I’ll be if ye don’t fetch a ladder quick!”

They brought a ladder and set it against the mound. Three of the men climbed up. At the top they found a big round hole, from the lip of which they scraped the sand away, discovering a patch of shingle roof, through which St. Piran–whose weight had increased of late–had broken and tumbled heels over head into his own church.

Three hours later there appeared on the eastern sky-line, against the yellow blaze of the morning, a large cavalcade that slowly pricked its way over the edge and descended the slopes of Newlyn Downs. It was the Visitation. In the midst rode St. Petroc, his crozier tucked under his arm, astride a white mule with scarlet ear-tassels and bells and a saddle of scarlet leather. He gazed across the sands to the sea, and turned to St. Neot, who towered at his side upon a flea-bitten grey.

“The parish seems to be deserted,” said he: “not a man nor woman can I see, nor a trace of smoke above the chimneys.”

St. Neot tightened his thin lips. In his secret heart he was mightily pleased.

“Eight in the morning,” he answered, with a glance back at the sun. “They’ll be all abed, I’ll warrant you.”

St. Petroc muttered a threat.

They entered the village street. Not a soul turned out at their coming. Every cottage door was fast closed, nor could any amount of knocking elicit an answer or entice a face to a window. In gathering wrath the visiting saints rode along the sea-shore to St. Piran’s small hut.

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Here the door stood open: but the hut was empty. A meagre breakfast of herbs was set out on the table, and a brand new scourge lay somewhat ostentatiously beside the platter. The visitors stood nonplussed, looked at each other, then eyed the landscape. Between barren sea and barren downs the beach stretched away, with not a human shape in sight. St. Petroc, choking with impotent wrath, appeared to study the hollow green breakers from between the long ears of his mule, but with quick sidelong glances right and left, ready to jump down the throat of the first saint that dared to smile.

After a minute or so St. Enodar suddenly turned his face inland, and held up a finger.

“Hark!” he shouted above the roar of the sea.

“What is it?”

“It sounds to me,” said St. Petroc, after listening for some moments with his head on one side, “it sounds to me like a hymn.”

“To be sure ’tis a hymn,” said St. Enodar, “and the tune is ‘Mullyon,’ for a crown.” And he pursed up his lips and followed the chant, beating time with his forefinger–

When, like a thief, the Midianite
Shall steal upon the camp,
O, let him find our armour bright,
And oil within our lamp!”

“But where in the world does it come from?” asked St. Neot.

This could not be answered for the moment; but the saints turned their horses’ heads from the sea, and moved slowly on the track of the sound, which at every step grew louder and more distinct.

“It is at no appointed hours,
It is not by the dock,
That Satan, grisly wolf, devours
The unprotected flock”

The visitors found themselves at the foot of an enormous sand-hill, from the top of which the chant was pouring as lava from a crater. They set their ears to the sandy wall. They walked round it, and listened again.

“But ever prowls th’ insidious foe,
And listens round the fold”

This was too much. St. Petroc smote twice upon the sand-hill with his crozier, and shouted–

“Hi, there!”

The chant ceased. For at least a couple of minutes nothing happened; and then St. Piran’s bald head was thrust cautiously forward over the summit.

“Holy St. Petroc! Was it only you, after all? And St. Neot–and St. Udy O, glory be!”

“Why, who did you imagine we were?” St. Petroc asked, still in amazement.

“Why, throat-cutting Danes, to be sure, by the way you were comin’ over the hills when we spied you, three hours back. An’ the trouble we’ve had to cover up our blessed church out o’ sight of thim marautherin’ thieves! An’ the intire parish gathered inside here an’ singin’ good-by songs in expectation of imminent death! An’ to think ’twas you holy men, all the while! But why didn’t ye send word ye was comin’, St. Petroc, darlint? For it’s little but sand ye’ll find in your mouths for breakfast, I’m thinkin’.”

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