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Abbot & the Piskies

Abbot & the Piskies

What happened was, hundreds of years ago the monks of Tavistock and in particular the Abbot upset the piskies something awful. At that time the old Abbot was disgusted by the absolute belief the moorfolk held in the little folk, in his eyes it was no less than ‘idol worship’. He gave orders to punish people for wearing piskie charms, visiting ‘piskie rings’ and leaving out offerings of food and drink for them. He waged a war the like of which the piskies had never seen. Eventually the little folk had enough of the monastic persecution and decided to retaliate. The monks who worked in the abbey’s dairy were the first to feel the effects of the piskie mischief. Suddenly they found it impossible to make their butter as the cream would not ‘turn’ into the golden spread. It was tradition that on Fridays the monks would eat fish for dinner. With the numerous clear moorland streams near to the abbey it was normal practice for the monks to catch some of the many trout swimming in the cool clear waters. This all stopped when the piskies put a spell on the streams which made all the fish invisible to mortal eyes. Any monk found walking the moors would be piskie led resulting in their journeys taking them anywhere but where they wanted to go. But still the Abbot insisted on the persecution of the piskies, after all it was not he who was being piskie-led although admittedly he did miss his butter and fish.

Now Tavistock Abbey was renown for its sumptuous table and even more so for its ‘still room’. So deep was the reputation of the fare at the abbey that a local saying for any well proportioned person was that they were “as fat as a Tavistock Abbot.” The monk’s cider was regarded as the best in the county, but what really was the speciality was a liqueur distilled from the moorland heathers. This really was nectar from the gods and any visitor to the abbey would always partake of the ‘Tavistock Tipple’. The distillation method was ‘top secret’ and was only ever known to two monks at a time, not even the abbot knew of the process. If one of the chosen monks died the surviving monk would then pass it on to another and so the secret was passed down through generations of holy men. Now, the heather liqueur was a particular favourite of the abbot who insisted on regularly checking the quality of the tipple.

Abbot & the Piskies

One day when the monks held their daily meeting in the chapter house the abbot announced that he took the war so seriously with the piskies that “not a drop of heather liqueur would pass his lips until he had driven them out of every parish under his jurisdiction. From that day on the abbot only drank water that is until the piskies got to hear of his pledge. That night as the abbot sat down to his meal a piskie stole in and unbeknown turned his water into heather liqueur. Having once again tasted his favourite tipple he realised what he had been missing and decided to go down to the still room to refill his goblet. The abbot dismissed the cellarer and when he was sure nobody could see he poured another goblet and then another and then another until he slumped to the floor. The effects of the drink began to send him to sleep and as he lay on the floor snoring like a pig the piskies stole into the room and started pulling his ears and tweaking his nose. The abbot would wake up and swat away his unseen tormentors who would then let him drift of to sleep again. Once he resumed his snoring they would wake him up until in the end the abbot lost his temper and loudly cursed the little folk. Firstly he screamed in Latin and then in such foul language that it brought all the monks of the monastery to see what the commotion was about. On seeing the state of their abbot the brothers agreed that he had been possessed by the Evil One, now whether they meant the Devil or the heather liqueur nobody is sure.

The next saw a very embarrassed abbot, not only had he got drunk, swore, and cursed he had broken his vow. The news soon got around the moor and the poor old chap was the laughing stock. Luckily he was made of even sterner stuff and his shame stiffened the abbot’s resolve to eradicate the piskies. The next evening a sun tanned travelling monk visited the abbey and was told the story of the piskie mischief. He had had just returned from the Holy Lands and had seen greater misdoings than this. He visited the abbot in his house and explained that how in his opinion the ‘evil one’ was behind all his troubles. The pilgrim said how the only way to stop the evil little folk was to excommunicate both them and the Devil. The abbot was that relieved to actually hear a solution that he was almost tempted to toast the man with some heather liqueur but decided it may be prudent to do that at a later date.

The very next day a High Mass was held at the abbey, every monk was in attendance and processed through every building in the abbey, even the lavatorium. With bell, book, and candle they chanted and sprinkled holy water into every nook and cranny. They used so much that a monk was sent to the well to get fresh supplies. After they had visited all the rooms of the abbey they processed around the abbey grounds, then the monks proceeded to march around the bounds of the abbey lands ringing, sprinkling and cursing as they went. The poor piskies had no hope and the news spread that the holy men had banished the little folk from their lands. From that day forth not a piskie was seen anywhere on Tavistock Abbey lands and the monks returned to their normal life of prayer and work. On the Friday night the abbot dined on fresh buttered trout washed down with a bucketful of heather liqueur. He wanted to invite the monk from the Holy Lands but he had mysteriously disappeared much to the abbots disappointment but in the end it meant more Tavistock Tipple for him.

To ensure the piskies never came back a huge granite cross was set up on the edge of the Tavistock lands. This cross was called the ‘Piskie’s Cross and still stands today up on Whitchurch Common. So powerful was the work of the monks that it is said if any traveller should become piskie led, all he has to do is step onto the lands belonging to the ancient abbey and the spell will be broken.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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