Tregagle’s Hole is a natural arch in a rocky promontory south of Carne Beacon. Its name commemorates Cornwall’s most powerful ghost, Jan or John Tregeagle or Tregagle.
Stories about Tregeagle appear to have coalesced round the memory of a John Tregeagle who lived in the early seventeenth century. He is said to have been the foster-brother and chief steward of John, second Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock. Various episodes in his life brought his name into such ill repute that, by the time of Richard Polwhele’s History of Cornwall (1803), he was remembered as a very wicked man.
According to traditions current in William Bottrell’s time, he was an unscrupulous lawyer who took bribes, forged documents, and bore false witness in pursuit of power and riches. He was also a Cornish Bluebeard, dispatching several wealthy wives, and selling his soul to the Devil. When Tregeagle died in 1655, he was buried in St Breock churchyard. Rumour said he had to bribe the parson to get into consecrated ground, and he has no memorial.
He was summoned from the grave by his name being spoken in court. One man lent another money with Tregeagle as witness, though no documents were signed. After Tregeagle’s death, the lender tried to get the money repaid, but the debtor denied having received it. The case went to Bodmin Assizes, and, when the plaintiff said that the loan was witnessed by Tregeagle, the defendant swore, ‘If Tregeagle ever saw it, I wish to God that Tregeagle may come and declare it!’
The oath was no sooner uttered, than Tregeagle stood before the court and said the debtor had indeed had the money. Then he added ominously, ‘[T]hou hast … found it easy to bring me from the grave, but thou wilt not find it so easy to put me away.’ Though the debtor repaid the loan, Tregeagle thereafter dogged his footsteps. Conjurors and parsons were brought in, who for a time bound the troublesome ghost to emptying Dozmary Pool on Bodmin with a ‘croggan’ or limpet shell. Not only did the shell have a hole in it, but Dozmary Pool itself was long believed to be bottomless or to connect with the sea. Richard Carew reports in 1602, ‘The country people held many strange conceits of this pool; as … that a fagot, once thrown thereinto, was taken up at Foy Haven, six miles distant.’
Tregeagle soon completed his task, however, and returned to plague his victim. More exorcists were called in, who bound him and led him to Gwenvor Cove. There they doomed him to make a truss of sand, bind it with ropes of the same, and carry it up what Bottrell in notes given to Hunt describes as ‘a certain rock’ in Escall’s Cliff, but in his own book calls Carn Olva.
Tregeagle laboured fruitlessly at this task, until, one night of hard frost, he poured water from the Vellandreath Brook on the truss so that it froze and he could carry it to the Carn. Then he flew back to the terrified debtor, who summoned more ghost-layers. They bound Tregeagle to sand-spinning at Gwenvor once again, now with the proviso that he must not go near fresh water. ‘So Tregeagle was matched at last,’ writes Bottrell, ‘for he is still there on the shore of Whitesand Bay vainly trying to make his truss of sand; and he is frequently heard roaring for days before a northerly storm comes to scatter it.’
Robert Hunt’s version of the legend says that Tregeagle escaped from Dozmary Pool and raced across the moors until he came to Roche Rock, ‘a huge, high, and steep rock, seated in a plain’ as Carew calls it, surmounted by the remains of the late medieval St Michael’s chapel. From here, an assortment of monks, parsons, unnamed saints, and St Petroc by turns chivvied him to Padstow, to weave ropes of sand, then to Bareppa, to clear the beach by shovelling sand into sacks and carrying them to Porthleven. Crossing the Loe estuary, he one day dropped his sack and thus Loe Bar was created (in point of fact, it formed in the thirteenth century). From there he was finally banished to Land’s End, and condemned to sweep the sand from PORTHCURNO Cove round to Nanjizal.
The ghosts of the wicked are often forced to perform everlasting tasks, but Tregeagle is more than the usual ghost. His voice is heard in the roaring of the wind on the moors around the hill-fort of Castle-an-Dinas, St Columb Major. As the Quiller-Couches wrote in 1894, ‘The howls of the great spirit Tregeagle … are among the weirdest sounds of the Cornish hills and moors.’