From Selkies to were­wolves

The mag­i­cal myth­i­cal crea­tures of Scot­tish folk­lore

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS -

CHILL­ING, mes­meris­ing, mag­i­cal, blood­thirsty and beau­ti­ful by turn ... Scot­land has some of the most en­dur­ing myths and leg­ends in the world – tales which help us make sense of our wild, weird, crazy world. As Hal­loween draws near, we bring you an es­sen­tial guide to Scot­land’s mys­ti­cal realm.


In a con­test of the world’s best-known myth­i­cal mon­sters Nessie would be win hands down. Loch Ness’s celebrity mon­ster was first spot­ted in the 6th cen­tury by Ir­ish monk Saint Columba, on his way to In­ver­ness to visit the King of the Picts. Ap­par­ently he found the ter­ri­fy­ing crea­ture scar­ing the lo­cals on the loch shore and, while mak­ing the sign of the cross, he suc­cess­fully com­manded it to re­turn to the wa­ter.

Sight­ings of the crea­ture, sup­pos­edly lurk­ing in the shad­ows of the 745ft deep loch, con­tin­ued through the cen­turies, as Nessie mor­phed in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion from a sea ser­pent to aquatic di­nosaur.

In 1933, con­struc­tion be­gan on the lochside A82 road, with nu­mer­ous glimpses re­ported and a grainy pho­to­graph of her head and neck ris­ing above the sur­face of the wa­ter pro­duced by RK Wil­son in 1934. Since then, many oth­ers claim to have cap­tured her im­age, but she’s still never been found.

It is said Nessie’s ori­gins may lie in the an­cient Scot­tish myth of the Kelpie, the loch-liv­ing wa­ter horse who tricked un­sus­pect­ing vic­tims to mount him, only to see the melan­choly horse dra­mat­i­cally in­crease in size and power, and its mane turn to ser­pents which wound them­selves around their vic­tim. The great beast, so the story goes, would then gal­lop back into the loch where riders met a wa­tery death.

Be­ware, too, of the beau­ti­ful selkies – shape-shift­ing seals found around Scot­land’s most northerly isles – who can slip off their soft seal skins and take the shape of women. Se­duc­tive selkies of­ten fall for hu­mans, it’s said, but the call of the sea is al­ways greater than the lure of land­locked love. Tales tell of the pos­ses­sive lovers of selkies who have hid­den their paramour’s skin in a vain at­tempt to pro­long their stay, but of­ten end up alone and bro­ken-hearted when their love an­swers the call of the deep.

Scot­tish tales of mer-peo­ple also come in the form of the blue men of the Minch, who swim the stretch of wa­ter be­tween the Outer He­brides and main­land Scot­land, look­ing for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sink.


Scot­tish fairies dance capri­ciously through many Scot­tish folk tales. Orig­i­nally thought to be evil – take care not to fall asleep in a fairy cir­cle, espe- cially af­ter sun­set, if you want to live to tell the tale – an­cient sto­ries of lit­tle peo­ple have them steal­ing away ba­bies and leav­ing a changeling in its place.

Oth­ers are prop­erly vi­cious. Baob­han sith – or vam­pire fairies – devoured their male vic­tims and ripped out their hearts. Yet treat the sidhe (pro­nounced shee) well and they would re­pay acts of kind­ness with good luck. Skye’s Fairy Glen, with its al­most su­per­nat­u­rally green, grassy knolls, is said to be a favoured spot to find them. The is­land’s Dun­ve­gan Cas­tle, home to the Clan Ma­cLeod, is also home to the fairy flag – a stan­dard said to be given to the clan by the lit­tle peo­ple.

Fairies, too, come it dif­fer­ent shapes and forms ac­cord­ing to leg­end. The ghillie dhu is a male fairy liv­ing deep in Scot­tish forests where dis­tinc­tive birch trees grows. Liv­ing alone, he cam­ou­flages him­self in clothes of leaves and moss and only comes out at night.

This wild lit­tle tree sprite is kind­ness it­self to chil­dren who find them­selves lost in the woods – one story tells of how he found a lit­tle lost girl, Jessie Macrae, cry­ing be­cause night had fallen and she had lost her way and he led her to the edge of the wood and her home be­side the loch.

Oth­ers tell of his wrath for older tres­passers. In some ver­sions the ghillie dhu has moved away from the for­est and into the parks and gar­dens where he now per­forms the role of a Scot­tish tooth fairy.

The brownie, mean­while, is as good-na­tured as other myth­i­cal lit­tle peo­ple are malev­o­lent. The lit­tle brown elves, or house­hold gob­lins, sup­pos­edly

live in coun­try houses across Scot­land and do the house­hold chores while peo­ple sleep, dis­ap­pear­ing only if they are treated badly.


Though East­ern Europe is con­sid­ered the nat­u­ral arena of vam­pires, Scot­land was once a hotspot for the un­dead. Glamis Cas­tle (the child­hood home of the late Queen Mother) has its very own blood-suck­ers, with one story claim­ing that within each gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily a vam­pire is born and hid­den away in a se­cret room.

In an­other tale dat­ing back hun­dreds of years, a serv­ing woman was said to have been caught lean­ing over a body and drink­ing the vic­tim’s blood. In this telling she was also walled up alive in

I sold my home to be­come a Nessie hunter and solve one of the world’s en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies. There is such joy liv­ing this life on Loch Ness

the cas­tle as pun­ish­ment. Some leg­ends may be rooted in truth. Some­where in the 16ft-thick walls is the fa­mous room of skulls. Here, the Ogilvie fam­ily, who in 1486 sought pro­tec­tion from their en­e­mies the Lind­says, were walled up and died of star­va­tion. The cas­tle is also said to be home to the “Glamis Mon­ster”, Thomas Lyon-Bowes – a scion of the Queen Mother’s fam­ily – who was born de­formed and kept in se­crecy in the cas­tle.

Not all Scot­tish leg­ends con­cern the wealthy, how­ever. In 1954, a strange ru­mour did the rounds in the school play­grounds of the Gor­bals in Glas­gow about a man with iron teeth who had ab­ducted and eaten two lo­cal young boys. One night in late Septem­ber, hun­dreds of chil­dren gath­ered at the South­ern Ne­crop­o­lis, armed with what­ever they could find and de­ter­mined to track down and kill the Gor­bals Vam­pire.

Scot­tish were­wolves were ar­guably less fierce, at least ac­cord­ing to the tales of the Shet­land wul­ver, who took the form of man with a wolf’s head and left fish on the win­dowsills of poor and hungry fam­i­lies. Cov­ered in a layer of thick brown hair, un­like the were­wolf, the wul­ver was never hu­man, but, claimed the an­cient Celts, a crea­ture half­way be­tween man and wolf.

While there are plenty of tales of god­desses, of­ten as­so­ci­ated with na­ture, the devil also stalks our myth­i­cal land­scape. In some sto­ries he takes the form of Black Don­ald, a ter­ri­fy­ing, shape-shift­ing beast. Mas­ter of dis­guise he may be, but you can tell a lot about a man by what he wears on his feet. The devil’s cloven feet can­not be shod. Steer clear.


Steve Feltham sold his Dorset home in 1991 to ful­fil his Nessie-hunt­ing boy­hood dream – in­spired by a fam­ily hol­i­day to Loch Ness in the early 1970s – and has lived ever since in a ex-mo­bile library (which has nei­ther run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity) on Dores beach. Within the first year he had a pos­si­ble sight­ing, last­ing about 10 sec­onds “of wa­ter splash­ing off the back of some­thing” that de­fied ex­pla­na­tion. He is still wait­ing for his sec­ond sight­ing.

Now he spends his days with his binoc­u­lars and cam­era at the ready, talk­ing to tourists on the beach about their pos­si­ble sight­ings and sell­ing Nessie mod­els he makes to fund his hunt. As the years roll on, he has be­come in­creas­ingly con­vinced that the mon­ster sight­ings are ac­tu­ally glimpses of a small pop­u­la­tion of Wels cat­fish, in­tro­duced to the UK about 130 years ago, which can grow to five me­tres long.

“That would ex­plain the peak in sight­ings,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be an alien or a di­nosaur in that loch. There are still lots of pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

He ad­mits he’s un­likely to give up the hunt. “I al­ways wanted to try to solve one of the world’s most en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies,” he says. “And there is such joy in liv­ing the life that I al­ways wanted to live.”


Robert the Bruce and his in­dus­tri­ous spi­der. Sawney Bean, the me­dieval Ayr­shire can­ni­bal chief. St Mungo, the pa­tron saint of Glas­gow cap­tur­ing the salmon that swal­lowed the ring of the 6th-cen­tury Queen of Strath­clyde, Lan­guoreth, thrown into the river by her young lover and re­turned to her before it could be missed by the king.

These folk tales run in our blood, ac­cord­ing to Don­ald Smith, direc­tor of the Scot­tish In­ter­na­tional Sto­ry­telling Fes­ti­val. “Peo­ple have been con­tin­u­ously pass­ing on sto­ries here for about 5,000 years, and each new cul­ture adds its in­gre­di­ents to a fan­tas­ti­cally rich brew,” he says.

“Un­der­stand­ing our en­vi­ron­ment and ex­pe­ri­ences has al­ways been the key. For ex­am­ple, sto­ries of the selkies or seal peo­ple brought com­fort to those who lost loved ones at sea. Gi­ant and dragon tales are of­ten about the way the land­scape is formed – by dra­matic el­e­men­tal forces. The ‘wee folk’ may re­flect an­ces­tors or gods and god­desses. We may in­ter­pret the world dif­fer­ently in mod­ern times, but we still con­nect in the lan­guage of story.”

An­other sto­ry­teller, David Camp­bell, be­lieves tales which sur­vived in Scot­land with the help of the trav­el­ling tra­di­tion of oral sto­ry­telling hold an essence of an­cient wis­dom. Among his favourites are Os­sian’s tales of the war­rior gi­ant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) who has had some of our most fa­mous ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures at­trib­uted to him. Leg­end has it he built the Gi­ant’s Cause­way in Ul­ster as step­ping-stones to Scot­land, so as not to get his feet wet. Fin­gal’s Cave is also named af­ter him.

“The sto­ries of Finn McCool can be traced back to the 8th cen­tury,” says Camp­bell. Fel­low sto­ry­teller Daniel Al­li­son ex­plains it this way: “The land­scape our sto­ries por­tray isn’t the one we see – it’s the land­scape of our psy­ches and dreams. These sto­ries speak a deeper truth.” Next week: Scot­tish witches past & present

Clock­wise, from main im­age: the fairy folk pop­u­late Scot­tish folk­lore and the land­scape, such as the Fairy Glen in Skye; were­wolves have their place too with the Shet­land wul­ver; Steve Feltham has been hunt­ing for Nessie since 1991; the fa­mous fake...

The selkie is a much-loved Scot­tish folk leg­end in which seal peo­ple were said to be able to in­habit hu­man form and make un­sus­pect­ing peo­ple on land fall in love with them, only to be lured back one day by the call of the sea, leav­ing their hu­man...

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