Episode 4: Coal and Pies is now live. This week concludes the story of Hansard’s dealings with the reclusive Coblynau, featuring pies, coal, and a brush with death.
The newest creature Hansard encounters in this escapade is the mysterious Bluecap. Related to the Welsh Coblynau and Cornish Knockers, this creature also lives in mines. Unlike Knockers, it doesn’t have a humanoid appearance. The Bluecap is said to appear as a blue flame and might be a kind of ghost or fairy creature. Like the Knockers, Bluecaps seem to have honest, hard-working motives: some miners have claimed to see them transporting full tubs of coal about the mine – the job of a ‘putter’, in mining terms.
The Bluecap would also lead miners to rich deposits, so long as they were treated respectfully. It’s a recurring theme that insulting folkloric creatures will only result in mischief. But some of these creatures are more mischievous than others, like the mine-dwelling Cutty Soames. I’ve seen Cutty Soames referred to as an ‘elf’, so I think of him as a cousin to the Knockers. He is named for his most unhelpful habit, the cutting of the ropes (‘soames’) that connected the putter to the coal-tub. When I learned this I couldn’t help but name the treacherous character in Episode 4 after him, it fit so nicely.
Both the Bluecap and Cutty Soames are described in an article in the Colliery Guardian of May 13th, 1863. The writer describes them both as a type of goblin or elf, and of Cutty Soames says:
‘He rejoiced in the name of “Cutty Soams,” and appears to have amused himself by severing the rope-traces or soams, by which an assistant-putter, honoured by the title of “the fool “, is yoked to the tub. The strands of hemp which were left all sound in the board at “kenner-time,” were found next morning severed in twain. “Cutty Soams” has been at work, could the fool and his driver say, dolefully knotting the cord.’
About the Bluecap, we are told that it expects to be paid the same wages as a putter, once a fortnight. Allegedly the Bluecap will only take its due, no more nor less. Wages were left in a specific corner of the mine, and would disappear overnight. (Methinks a human miner came away a little richer from that transaction.)
It’s easy to see how a mine can be a rich environment for the evolution of mythic creatures. With no end of strange sounds, knocking, dripping, whistling, and a constant threat of danger – think sudden cave-ins and fire-damp explosions – it’s a smorgasbord of possibilities for ghosts and goblins to take the credit. I know if I was a miner, alone in the dark with only a mysterious knocking for company, I’d like to think that I simply had a non-human companion hard at work on just the other side of my seam. And if I escaped a collapse with just seconds to spare, I know I’d be putting out food or money to help keep the critters on my side. Danger breeds superstition, and we all feel safer with the thought that something might be looking out for us in those situations.
An addendum: Last time I ended with a section on Welsh words used by the Coblynau. I want to take a moment to talk about just one more: gwas.
When working out how the Coblyn Ang speaks, I wanted to give her a nickname she could call Hansard, something that fit snugly anywhere in a sentence. Ideally, something akin to the word ‘mate’ in English. An initial Google of the word told me that gwas might be a slang term for mate or boyo, and it sounded perfect. However, a more direct translation tells us that gwas actually means ‘servant’ or ‘lad’ in a similar sense.
After some thought I decided this fit nicely. Assuming that Coblynau slang might be different from modern Welsh anyway, a derogatory nickname with a servile meaning at its roots was perfectly suitable. Plus, it sounded snappy.
Am I over-thinking this? You betcha! But detail makes me happy.
Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s the further reading list if it floats your boat:
The Ghost World, by T. F. Thistleton