Cemais Head and mermaid legend

link_to_french_translationCemais Head and mermaid legend

Cemais Head (often written as Cemaes Head) nature reserve is Pembrokeshire’s most northerly headland, overlooking the broad sweep of the mouth of the Teifi estuary.

According to local legend, in the 18th century a fisherman called Pergrin (sometimes written as Peregrin) caught a mermaid off Cemais Head. She promised to warn him with three shouts during his time of need if he released her.

He saw nothing of the mermaid until one day in September 1789 when she appeared beside his boat and called three times for him to take up his net. He and his mate quickly made for safety, to the surprise or amusement of other fishermen whom Pergrin had tried to warn. A hurricane suddenly arrived, upsetting the other boats. The storm drowned many fishermen – 18 in some accounts of the legend and 27 according to church records.

Since 1984 Cemais Head has been a nature reserve, now owned and managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. The eastern side is sheltered while the western side is exposed to the full force of the south-westerly Atlantic weather. Mostly the headland comprises steep slopes which give way to cliffs, generally no more than c.100m high. These cliffs are intersected by gullies, sea caves and small beaches. The geology of Cemais Head is mainly Silurian sedimentary rocks of the Devonian period, around 400 million years ago.

See the Footnotes for details of the wildlife here.

About the place-name:

Cemais Head was written as Penkemas poynt in a 1578 document, Kemes hed in 1589 and Kemaes head in 1748. Elsewhere in Wales, the name Cemais (or Cemaes) is associated with bends in a nearby river or inlet. Here Cemais was the name of a commote and hundred, covering a swathe of north-east Pembrokeshire. It possibly referred to bends elsewhere, such as along the coastline south of Cemais Head. The alternative spelling Cemaes arose from an erroneous assumption in the 18th century that the name derived from cefn (“back”) and maes (“field”).

With thanks to Nathan Walton of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and to Prof Hywel Wyn Owen, of the Welsh Place-Name Society

Where is this HiPoint?

Grid References: SN135495 and SN130497 (main entrances)

Cemais Head on Wildlife Trust website

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Footnotes: Wildlife at Cemais Head

There are areas of pony and rabbit-grazed maritime grassland on the western slopes. This grassland is comprised of red fescue and thrift and has abundant spring squill and sea plantain. Patches of maritime heath with heather (ling), bell heather and western gorse occur on the highest parts. Bracken is abundant, and has to be controlled on the eastern slopes. Amid the bracken grows climbing corydalis, which produces pale cream flowers in summer. The cliffs support the large fleshy-leaved variety of buck’s-horn plantain, whose flowers form a spike resembling a tiny bunch of bananas or plantain fruit.

The extensive areas of close-cropped grass, formed by pony grazing, on the west side of Cemais Head are an advantage to the small chough population, consisting of one breeding pair on the reserve and one other just outside the boundary. The site is used by many other choughs for foraging. Choughs are members of the crow family with red bills and feet.

Small numbers of herring gulls, fulmars and shags breed at Cemais Head, together with a colony of cormorants. Other species of note include peregrines, kestrel, raven, wheatear, stonechat and skylarks, which breed on the reserve. Grey seals haul out on inaccessible beaches in the winter and breed in the late summer, and are sometimes to be seen swimming offshore, as are schools of dolphins and porpoises. Bank voles also live here.