We are sorry to say that Craig has died during July 2020, after a long illness. He was a ferocious protector of Cornwall and a thoroughly decent man also a very fine scholar and publisher of Cornish History. R.I.P Craig.
The headland of Tol Pedn Penwith (a wonderful name sadly discarded in recent years for the dubious, lack-lustre “Gwennap Head”), as Britain’s most south-westerly point, the real Land’s End, hunches above the tiny haven of Porthgwarra like a hill cut in half. Its seaward cliff is an awesome series of pinnacled buttresses of cube-jointed granite rising to well over two hundred feet. The tallest of them is the Chair Ladder, beloved of climbers and topped by a huge chair-like formation which, according to Victorian folklorist Robert Hunt, was the seat of the notorious Madge Figgy, leader of the coven known as the St. Levan witches. Madge (or Madgy) is a fascinating character, horribly stereotyped and, I feel, misrepresented at Land’s End as a cackling nutcracker-jawed, even green-faced, crone. Hunt’s story shows her to be a powerful character imbued with considerable wisdom, even if her motives were not particularly desirable.
When not using the Chair Ladder or the Castle Peak which towers over the Loggan Stone on Castle Treryn a couple of miles away as launch pads for herself and her sister witches to mount raids on Wales and even Spain mount-ed on ragwort stems and black ram-cats (broomsticks were not in vogue in Penwith), she and her husband were leaders of a notorious wrecking crew. These, in usual Cornish fashion, stripped foundered ships of everything of value. There were no false lights involved in fact the only cited example of this practice, so flogged to death by the tourist trade and Victorian novelists, was the pirate-wrecker of Tregeseal who’d been dumped on Penwith’s shores by the crew of a privateer who could no longer stand his presence. The wreckers of St. Levan, though, had an extra edge: the uncanny Madge having the ability to summon storms to drive the richest merchantmen ashore. This she did from her accustomed place of power, the great chair at the dizzy peak of the Chair Ladder. No one knows who Madge Figgy was. She makes her first appearance in Hunt’s collection of legends, but not in William Bottrell’s earlier collection. Another tale of her related by Hunt. when she cheated a St. Buryan man out of a prize pig. is attributed by Bottrell to another witch entirely (Betty Trenoweth of St Buryan).
Bottrell does, though, mention a Zennor witch named Margaret D- (it is argued that this surname was Dennis) who had married a Sennen or St. Levan sailor with a surname beginning with V. This was most likely Vingoe, the only surname of that initial native to either of those parishes. Of reputed Norman-French origin, the Vingoe family owned Land’s End for 900 years until its unfortunate sale to de Savary a few years ago (the previous owner, Charles Neave-Hill was a Vingoe descendant). This ancient family even had its own supernatural token, chains of fire rising and falling on Trevilley Cliff preceding the death of a Vingoe. `Piggy” sounds like a typical Penwith nickname and, to the ear, is not a million miles removed from “Vingoe”. Was William Bottrell’s witch of Zennor, Margaret Vingoe nee Dennis, Hunt’s Madge Figgy?
Madge and her rituals at Tol Pedn seem to have supplanted an earlier witch associated with the same site – a man, Harry the Hermit of Chapel Cam Brea. Harry appears in a folktale penned partly in English and partly in Cornish by Newlyn’s Nicholas Boson between 1660 and 1700. This tale, The Duchess of Cornwall’s Progress, somewhat echoed by Bottrell’s A Queen’s Visit to Baranhuel (Burnewell, St Buryan), was apparently based on a visit to the district by Catherine of Braganza prior to her marriage to Charles II. Boson has the “Duchess” visit the first and last hill of Chapel Carn Brea to view its tiny hermitage chapel perched on a stupendous prehistoric cairn. Here dwelt Harry the hermit “in his state and gravity”, and here she received a series of charges laid against Harry by the Dean of St. Buryan. These were that Harry was a great witch, that he would raise storms against local mariners because their wives would not pay him tithe eggs he claimed were his due (the Dean himself claimed this); that he would sit for long
periods, without fear, on the brink of a precipice in a place called Tutton Harry an Lader (the seat of Harry the Thief,) where no other could go without breaking their necks; and that it was his habit to conjure a boat from a sheep’s shoulder blade and to sail it from the great cave at Tol Pedn Penwith. Local people took to piercing such bones before disposal to prevent Harry from doing this. Harry, then, was the original storm summoning magician of the Chair Ladder, the name of which is explained by his cited nickname Harry an Lader which suggests that the name means “The Thief’s Chair”. The cave from which he sailed his magical boat can still be seen, running in under the stupendous vertical blowhole which gives Tol Pedn Penwith (Penwith’s holed headland) its name.
The habit of Harry and, and later, Madge Figgy, of conjuring storms seems to be a darker facet of an ancient practice of witchcraft, that of “calling down the wind”. Long ago, it was the custom of witches at Boscastle to gather at the harbour to “sell the wind” to departing sailors to whom they would give a cord with three knots (the magical figure 3, significant in magic, especially in Celtic lands.) Undoing the first knot would bring a favourable breeze for departure; the second a fair wind for the voyage, and the third a safe wind to bring the ship into harbour. All very benevolent, unlike the motives of Harry the Hermit and Madge Figgy who used their power for profit and, in Madge’s case in particular, regardless of her victims’ fate. She’d have done well in parliament!