Writer: Tim Hannigan
Photography: Steve Tynan
Goblin’s Gold at the Carn Euny Fogou
Look: stand where the light’s just right;
Tilt your head just so – you’ll see
These corbelled walls aglow
With a dim green negative of flame.
A buried granite firmament,
Empty, scented now with damp and cold;
And in the crevices,
A clammy fur of goblin’s gold.
But stand just so,
You might still see
The walls pressed newly smooth with rab,
Somewhere in mid-Cornwall – somewhere between Helman Tor and Carn Brea, in fact – the Old English word tor gives way to the Cornish carn. The meaning is the same: a rocky outcrop, though in western Cornwall you’ll find carns on clifftops as well as on hills.
Carn Euny is perhaps the most modest of Penwith’s granite outcrops. It stands not at some high summit surrounded by gorse and heather, but halfway down the south-facing slope between Bartinney and Caer Bran on the western marches of Sancreed parish; a humble wart of granite, built into the fabric of the surrounding fields. Many visitors to the vicinity don’t even realise it’s there, hidden by trees and high hedges.
But the people who lived in this landscape thousands of years ago knew about the carn. They could have built their settlement anywhere along the spring-line. But they gravitated to the granite and made a homeplace of huddled courtyard houses in its lee. A good spot, this, sheltered from the worst of the westerlies, well-drained, raised above the boggy levels to the south. The little village lasted for some 800 years, from the middle Iron Age to around 400CE.
The people who lived here did not know the outcrop as Carn Euny (though they may well have used a word similar to carn) and we’ll never know what they called their village. Euny (or Uny) was one of the so-called Celtic Saints, a brother of Ia of St Ives and Herygh of St Erth, who – if he existed at all – travelled to Cornwall from Ireland in the century after the settlement was abandoned. His name was later attached to a nearby healing well, and thus to the outcrop.
Though the original settlement at Carn Euny was abandoned, the landscape was not. Other hamlets sprouted along the same slopes – Brane (Bos Vran, “Bran’s Dwelling”); Tredinney (Tre Dini, “Settlement of the Rump-Place”); Bolankan (Bos Lonkyn, “Dwelling of the Little Ravine”). And according to the 19th-century folklorist Robert Hunt, on the first three Wednesdays of May children suffering from mesenteric diseases were brought to the healing well in search of a cure, dipped three times in the cool, clear water and dragged thrice around its edge against the path of the sun. The foundations of the old courtyard houses were turned into garden plots and robbed for building stone, and sometime in the early 19th century prospectors, fossicking for tin, uncovered a forgotten feature at the heart of the place. Writing in 1861, J.T. Blight described it as “a curious subterranean gallery, walled on the sides, and covered with slabs of granite”. It was partly fallen in, “and cannot easily be entered”. This subterranean gallery is what is known as a fogou (Cornish for “cave”), an underground structure, typically built close to an Iron Age village – though whether for refuge, storage, ritual or all three we do not know.The Carn Euny fogou has been cleaned up since Blight’s day. It is one of the finest in Cornwall. Off the main gallery is a large sunken beehive chamber, built of corbelled granite. The walls are thick with Schistostega pennata, the moss known as “goblin’s gold” which, if viewed from just the right angle, seems to glow.