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The Giants of Cornwall

Updated on February 10, 2017
"A Most Terrific Giant" Arthur Rackham (1918)
"A Most Terrific Giant" Arthur Rackham (1918)

Giants figure quite large in English folklore. They are a reminder that nature cannot be tamed and a way to describe how local geographic features were formed. The Anglo-Saxon imagination also ran away with images of giants, as they could not imagine the decaying Roman ruins being built by anyone other than a being of immense stature and strength. The English country side, and even many cities, are strewn with legends of local giants, including the Celtic peninsula of Cornwall.

Bolster

The Giant Bolster was a huge brute, living at the hill known as Carne Bury-anacht (the sparstone grave), now called St. Agnes’ Beacon. He was so large that he could stand with one foot on the hill and the other on Carn Brea, a hill six miles distant. His tread was so heavy that his footprint is still embedded deep in a stone there.

Bolster had many foul tempers, which ranged from eating children to mistreating his wife. This poor giantess was made to labor for Bolster day and night, with such fruitless endeavors as grouping many small stones. Although fruitless to her, it did give one local farm stone free land, which makes it vastly different from other farms in the area.

He also mistreated his wife by being enamored of, and constantly bothering, St. Agnes, a beautiful and virtuous local woman. St. Agnes lectured Bolster, reminding him of his wife, but this was to no avail. Even her prayers went unanswered, for he was never dissuaded in his pursuit of her. Finally, she hatched an idea and told him that she would return his love, if only he would perform one task for her. He was to fill up a hole at the bottom of the cliff at Chapel Porth.

Bolster readily agreed, feeling he had blood enough to remain injury free for this task, and knew Agnes would then be his. Placing his arm over the hole, he cut deep with his knife and watched as his blood flowed into the gap. Hours passed by and the hole still was not full, and Bolster discovered he was too weak from blood loss to move. He lay there as the last of his life’s blood ran away, ebbing along with his life.

Bolster's footprint - Chapel Porth, Cornwall
Bolster's footprint - Chapel Porth, Cornwall | Source

St. Agnes and the giantess were both freed of this horrid beast, no more children were eaten by the giant, and to this day, the cliffs near Chapel Porth are still stained red with Bolster’s blood. Even now, there is an annual festival near St. Agnes in Cornwall, where the events written here are reenacted, called Bolster Day.

Cormoran

This vicious giant is associated with St. Michael’s Mount, an island off the coast of Cornwall. He is, in fact, credited for creating the island. This 18 foot tall being had terrorized many local towns, eating cattle and children (children must taste especially good to giants!) and stealing the locals’ treasures. He created the island and lived in one of its caves, to guard his ill-gotten loot.

Some legends state he created the island himself, while others say he forced his wife to carry stones across the water in her apron, even kicking her when she brought the wrong kind (spousal abuse another seemingly common trait among giants).

Cormoran -- Arthur Rackham
Cormoran -- Arthur Rackham

After much raiding and eating, the locals became so enraged at this six-fingered, six-toed monster, that a reward was offered. A local lad by the name of Jack took it upon himself to earn this reward and swam out to the island one evening and spent the night digging a very deep hole. When morning came, Jack blew a hunting horn and awoke Cormoran. The giant came running at the young man, yelling that he would boil him alive and eat the jelly, when he fell into Jack’s hole.

With nothing but the giant’s head showing, Jack taunted the giant for some time (you’ll discover that many Jacks in folklore are not very wise). Finally tiring of this game, Jack took a mattock and delivered a blow straight into the giant’s head, killing it. The giant’s resting place was marked with a large boulder and is still called Giant’s Grave.

St. Michael's Mount -- James Webb circa 1890
St. Michael's Mount -- James Webb circa 1890

Jack recovered the treasure and returned home. He was henceforth called Jack the Giant-Killer and was awarded a belt on which was written: “Here’s the right valiant Cornishman, who slew the giant Cormoran.”

Cormoran and Jack the Giant-Killer (Arthur Rackham)
Cormoran and Jack the Giant-Killer (Arthur Rackham)

The Giant of Carn Galva

A more innocent and less nasty giant lived near the rocks and glades of Carn Galva. The giant lived on a rock hill and would amuse himself by throwing and kicking the large stones, forming the two mounds of his abode.

Rather than spend his time eating children, he played games with them, if they would do so. His favorite playmate was a young man named Choon. Choon would occasionally walk over to the giant’s abode and see how his large friend was doing, and would spend the afternoon playing quoits.

The Giant of Carn Galva
The Giant of Carn Galva

After one particular good game, the giant was so pleased that he laughed loudly and told Choon that “be sure to come again tomorrow, my son, and we will have a capitol game of bob.” As he was speaking, he lightly tapped his friend on the head with his fingertips. A giant’s tap, though, is stronger than a man’s strike, and as the last word came out of his mouth, his fingertips went right through Choon’s skull, killing him instantly.

The giant did his best to put his friend’s brains back in his head, but this only made matters worse. When the giant realized his friend was never going to play again, he rocked Choon’s corpse back and forth, crying and wailing. Saddened by the softness of the human body, he played no more and pined away, dying of a broken heart seven years later. The poor mite.

Carn Galva rock formation
Carn Galva rock formation | Source

Further reading:

“Popular Romances of the West of England” 1903 Robert Hunt

“English Fairy Tales” 1890 Joseph Jacobs

“Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol 1” 1870 William Bottrell

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