From Selkies to werewolves
The magical mythical creatures of Scottish folklore
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.
WATERY MONSTERS AND CREATURES OF THE DEEP
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.
FAIRIES, SPRITES & ELVES
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.
VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES & DEVILS
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.
THE NESSIE HUNTER
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.”
WHY WE LOVE FOLK TALES
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 1934 photo
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 lovers heartbroken