Cornish Folk Tradition: Songs Music Dance and Associated Customs
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Nadelik Lowen!

Cornwall is rich in midwinter and Christmas traditions and Tom Bawcock's at Mousehole on 23rd Dec comes high on the list of "must visit"s.

 

Tom Bawcock's Eve at Mousehole :

5pm Harbour Lights

6.30 Lantern Procession

7pm Star Gazey Pie served at the Ship Inn

Tom Bawcock's Eve Song

December brings us the darkest days and longest nights of the year and an excuse for “party time”, not that we ever need to invent reasons to celebrate the seasons in Cornwall. Measured astronomically the actual day of the Winter Solstice can vary between the 20th and 23rd December. This year it will be on 21st but for a Cornish custom that takes place in Mousehole each year it is the end of the solstice period that is celebrated on 23rd December.
The magic begins in the early evening with the lantern procession and you will begin to hear people sing “Tom Bawcock’s Eve” as they weave down through the village to the harbour. Once the procession reaches the harbour the traditional carol singing starts and the world famous lights, delayed whilst the lanterns arrive, are switched on to great dramatic effect.  Later in the evening the song is picked up in the local pubs where eventually the character of Tom Bawcock himself appears bearing the traditional dish of Star Gazey Pie. So what is Star Gazey Pie? Well the song starts with a chorus which gives a hint:

A merry place you may believe,
Is Mousehole on Tom Bawcock's Eve.
To be there then who wouldn’t wish,
To sup of seven sorts of fish!

Star Gazey Pie is made from seven different sort of fish laid out around the pie so that their heads protrude through “Star Gazing”! The words of the song then go on to capture some wonderful dialect words for various types of fish. We have “morgy” for dog fish, “lances” for sand eels, “scad” for horse mackerel and “fairmaids” for pilchards.

There are a number of different stories about the origins of the custom. In some, Tom Bawcock rescued the village from starvation by going out fishing in a dangerous storm, in others he broke with convention by fishing on this traditional feast day and received his due deserts with a poor catch of a motley fish. These stories together with the characteristic dialect expressions of the fishing community inspired Robert Morton Nance, Cornish language and dialect expert, to write the song in the 1920s. It has since become an essential part of the custom.
The legend of Tom Bawcock was given an additional momentum in the 1990s with Antonia Barber’s children’s story “The Mousehole Cat”. Here Tom Bawcock is joined on his stormy fishing escapade by his loyal black and white cat, “Mowzer”. Mowzer saves the day by purring at the storm and calming it down sufficiently for Tom to make his catch. Mousehole is definitely a merry place to be on Tom Bawcock’s Eve. 

 

An Daras, doorway in Cornish, is an outreach project of Lowender Peran, Cornwall’s Celtic festival, and provides a portal to the distinctive traditions of Cornwall . The links on the site map will take you to the tunes, songs, dances and associated traditions of Cornwall. There are also links to teaching materials and further research work and publications on Cornish Folk Tradition.

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