In a land full of ancient standing stones and tales of giants, dragons, and piskies, is it any surprise that mermaids are as much a part of Cornwall’s heritage as pasties and mining? The many mermaids of Cornwall provide fantastical legends that have lasted through the ages, still entertaining curious minds today just as they did hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago.
Cornwall’s mermaid tales (or rather tails) are a mixed bag of romance, revenge, and warning, with the county’s maritime maidens teetering between heroine and tormentor. It’s this changeable characteristic that makes them such a fun feature of myths. They are as powerful as they are mysterious, and as likely to curse your village as they are to sing you a song of the ocean.
History of mermaids
Everyone knows of mermaids, but where did these mystical creatures come from? From the Scottish Selkie to the sirens of Ancient Greece, mermaids in one form or another have been a part of our folklore since storytelling began.
It’s widely believed that the majority of mermaid sightings by sailors and clifftop wanderers over the years are probably just seals or manatees, perhaps with seaweed adding to the illusion of luscious long hair surrounding our oceanic maidens. But, as you will soon learn, it’s not just sailors who haven’t seen land (or a merry maid) in months who’ve spotted a mermaid or two. In fact, some of our Cornish stories feature accounts from reliable sources who certainly know the difference between a grey seal and a blue-finned woman!
Let’s see what these stories have to say, shall we?
Mermaid of Zennor
Perhaps the most famous of the mermaids of Cornwall is the mermaid of Zennor, a story that’s been told and retold since its first appearance in 1873. The story begins in the quiet village of Zennor, which sits atop the rugged cliffs of West Cornwall. In the village, there was (and still is) a small church called St Senara’s, which held frequent services.
As time went on, a mysterious woman started attending some of the church’s services, dressed head to toe in splendid finery. She would visit sporadically over many years, never seeming to age, and although many men approached the beautiful stranger, she was never successfully wooed. That is, until Mathew Trewella came along.
Some stories say that it was love at first sight between the unknown woman and Mathew, while others say that it was their equally enthralling voices that sparked the romance, as it was said that Mathew had the best singing voice in the village. However it happened, after their first meeting, Mathew followed his love home and was never seen again.
But that wasn’t to be the last of Mathew, oh no. Many years later, a ship had anchored out to sea from Zennor when a mermaid popped up out of the Cornish waters and asked if they could weigh anchor as it was blocking the entrance to her home, and she couldn’t reach her children. The sailors quickly obliged (after all, everyone knew how temperamental mermaids could be) and headed off to make port elsewhere.
When the sailors relayed their story to the villagers of Zennor, they were in no doubt… Mathew had run (or rather swam) off with the mysterious woman and now lived under the waves. While the story undoubtedly has a happy ending, it was used as a cautionary tale for the folks of Zennor. A beautifully carved chair (now fondly known as the mermaid chair) was created to remember the tale and warn those of the risks of following a siren’s call.
Of course, we like to see the romantic side of the story, and love visiting St Senara’s ancient chair while keeping a weather eye on the horizon for a mermaid story of our own – it’s even said that fishermen can still hear the two lovebirds singing, warning them of approaching storms.
When visiting Zennor and the famous church, we definitely recommend heading out onto the coast path. Not only will you get the best views for mermaid-spotting, but you can walk along the incredible South West Coast Path to St Ives, which is one of the most beautiful walks in St Ives and perhaps even Cornwall. Before setting off, why not pop into the historic pub The Tinners Arms for a cheeky pint or, for a treat you can enjoy while you walk, the Moomaid of Zennor ice cream parlour provides the perfect accompaniment to your mystical stroll.
Mermaid of Padstow
If you’ve ever been to Padstow in North Cornwall (or enjoyed a refreshing pint from Sharpe’s Brewery), you’ll be familiar with Cornwall’s Doom Bar, a sandy stretch off Padstow that has caused many a ship to flounder over the years. But did you know it was formed by a mermaid? That’s right, not all mermaid tales end in happy families, some end with shipwrecks and pale ale.
Now, there are a few variations of this stormy tale, but they all share one fact: a mermaid wronged is a formidable thing. The most recognised story tells of a man, who when out hunting for seals, came across a mermaid combing her salty hair on the beach. He immediately fell in love and asked the gentle beauty to be his wife. When she declined, the young man shot her in a moment of fury. It was only then that he realised she was a mermaid, and that had been the reason behind her refusal. He tried to save her but was too late and, in the poor mermaid’s dying moments, she cursed the harbour. It was this final act that turned a once busy port into a treacherous place that all but the smallest boats could visit.
Other variations of the tale talk of a man who accidentally kills a mermaid believing her to be a seal while another kills her for refusing his proposal even though she explains that it’s not possible due to her oceanic heritage. One thing is for certain though, this merry maid met an unfortunate end and in doing so, changed the foundations of Padstow harbour and its surrounding waters for generations to come.
Despite the curse, Padstow has continued to be a bustling harbour, with people visiting from all over the place to enjoy the many superb seafood restaurants and to cycle along the much-loved Camel Trail, which offers a beautiful place for a gentle ride along the Camel estuary.
Mermaid of Lamorna
Not only is Lamorna home to one of the most beautiful Cornish coves, but it's long been known to house a mermaid or two. As with Padstow, the stories surrounding this stunning cove and its mystical inhabitants vary, but with an overarching theme of treachery.
Both beginning with a bewitching creature sitting atop Mermaid’s Rock combing her long, sea-soaked hair while singing, the tales separate when it comes to the mermaid’s nefarious goals. Some stories speak of a mermaid that lures sailors to their doom with her siren’s song, while others tell of her songs bringing in great storms seven days after the final note, which inevitably end in shipwrecks and further doom for the locals.
While visiting Lamorna Cove (you can walk there via a stunning coastal path from Mousehole), keep an eye out for the other magical being that’s rumoured to live here. As the Cornish legend goes, a prince was cursed by a witch, turning him into a dark brown conger eel, or Sea Bucca, with knotted seaweed for hair. While he helped fishermen by herding fish into their waiting nets, the locals often left the Bucca alone as, just like the mermaids, he was known to have a terrible temper and penchant for revenge.
Mermaid of Seaton
Nestled on the stunning coast of South Cornwall you’ll find a beautiful sandy stretch at Seaton, but it wasn’t always the dog-friendly beach you see today. Many years ago, Seaton was a thriving fishing port, with fishermen making the most of the glimmering shoals of pilchards that roamed the waters. One day, while out fishing, a curious mermaid approached one of the boats and began flirting with one of the handsome young fishermen.
Too focused on his work, the lad ignored the mermaid and eventually she got tangled up in one of the nets by mistake. Although they rushed to free her immediately, the mermaid’s pride had been wounded. She sought immediate revenge and did what mermaids seem to do best and brought on a huge sandstorm, which covered the harbour and town, turning Seaton harbour into Seaton beach.
While this tale again reminds people to treat mermaids with the utmost respect for fear of retribution, at least this time we got a lovely beach out of it!
Mermaids of Mawgan Porth
While not so much a story but a series of sightings, the mermaids of Mawgan Porth are perhaps the most interesting of accounts. Back in the 1820s, the quiet beach at Mawgan Porth became the source of much intrigue when three separate sightings of mysterious creatures occurred.
On the first day, a young man arrived on the beach to meet his friend for an evening of fishing. When he arrived, his friend was nowhere to be seen but the nearby caves were emitting some curious noises, so naturally the Cornish lad had to investigate. Whatever it was that he saw in the cave sent a shiver down his spine as he sprinted back across the beach, shouting that the devil had arrived. The next day, the shocked local told the papers that he’d seen a half human creature with long hair – sound familiar?
Later that same day, a group of men were standing on the cliffs looking for shoals of pilchards when they saw a gathering of three mermaids on the rocks below, some snoozing and some lolling in the cool waves. The following day another five mermaids were spotted off the shore, with the men reportedly having watched them play in the waves for over an hour. While there was no interaction between the fascinated locals and the sea-born creatures, this story is one of the most perplexing (and dare we say believable) as the mermaids were seen by multiple people and the reports were printed in several issues of the West Briton. Was this a genuine sighting? We’ll leave that up to you…
Meet a mermaid
After these enthralling tales of magic and mermaids, you’ll probably be wondering if there are mermaids in Cornwall still…. Well, there are! Down in the beautiful harbour town of St Ives lives a mermaid to this day. Known to all as the St Ives Mermaid (and to some as Laura), this modern-day professional mermaid can be seen swimming around the clear waters of St Ives delighting passers-by.
The St Ives Mermaid has been known to appear at events and festivals around Cornwall, but you can also hire her yourself, whether you want a mythical guest star at your event or you want to embark on an underwater experience yourself – who hasn’t wanted to be a mermaid for a day?!
Alongside the St Ives Mermaid is Cornwall’s original real life mermaid, Kernow Mermaid. This aquatic Cornish maid also appears at events and festivals around Cornwall and also provides you with the chance to don a beautiful tail for a day as you star in your very own mermaid photoshoot - a dream come true! You can even buy your own mermaid tail as you step (we mean swim) into your very own mermaid tale.
Excited to discover the many mermaids of Cornwall? Explore our lovely collection of holiday cottages in Cornwall and embark on your own magical adventure. We have a number of cottages with sea views, perfect for a bit of mermaid spotting!