There are several legends of travellers stealing drinking vessels from the little people
By Richard Holland
There is a very well-known ‘legend’ regarding one of the Bronze Age treasures in the British Museum, the Rillaton Cup. This beautiful piece of prehistoric gold was found in a cist (a stone-lined grave) in a barrow at Rillaton, near Linkinhorne, Cornwall in 1837. I place ‘legend’ in quote marks because the yarn about the cup first appeared many years after its discovery, in A Book of the West by Sabine Baring-Gould, published in 1899. There is no evidence of an earlier tradition.
Baring-Gould told the story of a Druid who would sit on the Cheesewring tor handing out drinks to passing travellers. He had an inexhaustible supply of refreshments which he served in a golden goblet. One day, a greedy hunter wrenched the gold cup from the Druid and galloped away with it but his horse fell and he broke his neck, the goblet still clutched in his hand. He was buried with it, in Rillaton Barrow.
The tale bears some similarity with the legends of the magic Milk White Cow which provided an endless supply of milk until mistreated. According to Prof Leslie Grinsell, almost identical stories to the one ‘recorded’ by Baring-Gould are to be found in Scandinavian fairylore, and this ancient tradition may also have informed two much older chroniclers, William of Newburgh and Gervase of Tilbury (both 12th century). William tells of a drunken traveller who was offered a drink by fairy revellers at the Willy Knowe burial mound in Humberside, and who ran away with the cup (which was eventually presented to King Henry II). Gervase tells of a traveller stealing a gold and jewel-encrusted cup from fairies in Gloucestershire.
In his Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, Prof Grinsell mentions two other local fairy cup legends. He writes: ‘From a feast in a barrow called Fairy Hill, Orrisdale, Isle of Man, a fairy offered a passer-by a drink from a silver cup, but he threw out the contents and the fairies disappeared, leaving the cup in his hand. The passer-by sought advice from his priest who persuaded him to present the cup to Kirk Malew church for use at communion. It was later noticed that whenever a certain communion cup was used there, those who drank from it went mad afterwards, and so the use of that cup was abandoned. At Dun Osdale, Skye, wine was offered by a fairy to a MacLeod who did not drink it but stole the cup.’
The most famous drinking vessel stolen from the fairies, was the Luck of Edenhall (also pictured), an exquisite Venetian glass goblet of medieval date. This was supposedly pinched from a group of fairies by the butler of the Musgrave family of Edenhall (which is in Cumberland). He found them using the glass at a nearby well. The fairies cursed the goblet, however, warning that Edenhall’s luck would run out if the glass was broken or if it ever left the house. The Luck of Edenhall now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum, however – another national treasure with a supernatural story behind it.