The Legend of St Catherine's Island

By Terry John

Visitors to Tenby will quickly become familiar with St Catherine’s Island, the crag of rock at the eastern end of South Beach, its dramatic outline topped by a massive Victorian fort. Very few people know the ancient legend of the lonely soul who once lived there long before the building of the fort.

The story begins in a violent storm that blew up without warning one summer early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Many Tenby fishing vessels had left port that morning, and as the skies darkened and the waves began to rise, their crews hauled in their nets and headed back for the shelter of the harbour. Their families had gathered on Castle Hill, watching for their safe return and as the boats were counted in one by one, the watchers noticed that, far out across the bay, another, larger ship was struggling to reach shelter. Nobody recognised it as a local vessel, but it was noticeable that strange lights played across its decks and ghostly shapes seemed to be clinging to the rigging and the masts.

There was no one at the helm of the strange ship, but something or someone seemed to be guiding it in to the sands near St Catherine’s Island. As night fell, the vessel grounded with a sound like thunder, and though the watchers on Castle Hill rushed down to the beach to offer what help they could to the shipwrecked mariners, they could find no trace of the ship or its crew. Terrified, the people of Tenby fled back to their homes, but all through the night strange sounds were heard coming from the shore and disembodied voices wailed in the wind.

By morning, the storm had died down and the day was bright and clear. In groups of two or three, people came down to the sands to see what might be left of the ghostly ship. There was no trace of the wreck, but they were astonished to find a man wearing strange clothes, lying in a deep sleep near the top of the beach.

He was taken into the nearest house where he was cared for, but when he awoke he would tell them little of his background. He refused all offers of hospitality and retreated to St Catherine’s Island, where he made his home.

The only person to whom he would speak was a local shepherd, who each day brought him food and who, over many months, learned something of his life. The man had made a living as a pirate, leading a murderous band that attacked and robbed ships along the coasts of Wales.  The stranger wept as he recounted how in a jealous rage he had slain the person who had loved him most and how, as a punishment, his ship had been taken over by the spirits of those innocent sailors he had killed during his time as a pirate. It was these ghostly forms who had been visible as his ship approached the beach and who had caused the wreck.

The stranger explained that now he was tormented by sea maidens, who rose from the waves with messages from his dead lover, assuring him that she was now happy and wanted him to join her. As he related this story, he suddenly sprang to his feet, shouting, “I come, I come. Let me be with her, let me be at rest.” Before the startled shepherd could do anything, the stranger leapt from the cliffs of St Catherine’s Island, and was drowned.

Categories:Blog, History, Pembrokeshire

Tags:Wales

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