Your wee bit hill and glen
When you think of Scottish myth, legend and folklore, your thoughts may automatically go to the Highlands, and for very good reason, says
Old Alba’s most romantic region is so indelibly marked by myth and legend that its stories of supernatural forces, witchcraft, and magical, serpent-like creatures of the deep have been recounted the world over. Stealing the show is, of course, our dear Nessie who has the privilege of calling the sparkling waters of Loch Ness her home. But with the Highlands’ innumerable castles, hidden caves, and historic, bloody feuds that have coloured every inch of the landscape, there is much more to the country’s northerly hills and glens than just this friendly monster’s well-kent tale.
Beginning in the former Viking settlement of Wick, the town’s 15th-century Ackergill Tower is just one of the region’s many historic sites to be underpinned by a tragic, ghostly tale.
In the 1400s, the infamous Dugald Keith (who was, at the time, Ackergill’s factor) abducted a woman of outstanding beauty called Helen Gunn, known as the ‘Beauty of Braemore’. True to ill-fated tradition, he kept her in the highest room of the tallest of Ackergill’s towers. Dugald’s plan, however, was a complete non-starter. Not only was Helen already promised to another man (her cousin, Alexander Gunn), she was also less than enamoured by her abductor’s dishonourable advances. Leaping from the window to flee her kidnapper, Helen plummeted to her death, landing on a stone slab. To this day, the stone is said to bear her outline. Her spirit lingers still in the tower’s corridors, and – keen to preserve her reputation as a natural beauty – is usually seen with flowing, dark hair and a striking red ballgown.
Helen wasn’t the only young lady to find herself snared by lovers’ woe. Indeed, such tragic misfortunes have peppered our history books for centuries. Margaret Gordon, the eldest daughter of Dunrobin Castle’s 14th Earl of Sutherland, fell for a young stable boy named Jamie Gunn in the 17th century. Deemed ‘unworthy’ of Margaret’s status, Jamie was banished from the grounds, and Margaret was kept under lock and key in a room that is now known as the Seamstress’ Room. Of course, these star-crossed lovers had other plans. Sneaking back into the castle, Jamie helped his beautiful Scottish rose to descend from her room by a rope
of sheets. However, while dangling perilously, Margaret was discovered by her father who demanded she climb back up. Unwilling to live without her lover, she let go of the makeshift rope and fell to her untimely demise. Visitors today say they can hear an inconsolable, heartbroken woman wailing in the tower. Dotted in amongst these grief-stricken matters of the heart are, thankfully, some lighter tales pertaining to the nation’s mythical, magical creatures. It was believed, for instance, that the Sìth (Fairy People) resided inside may of the Highlands’ green hillocks and knolls, in bedecked palaces. Though they often had a reputation for being somewhat capricious, they largely went about their fairy business in peace, singing and dancing
as they went. But what business, you might ask? Well, some of the Highlands’ illustrious fairy folk are said to have been responsible for building the ‘Golden Bridge of Dornoch’. Stretching across the Dornoch Firth there is a bar of sand – a navigational hazard – known locally as ‘The Gizzen Briggs’ or ‘Noisy Bridge’ due to the sound of the tide crashing over it. Tired of having to cross from Ross-shire to Sutherland in cockle-shell boats, the fairies built a bridge of gold to make their lives a little easier. However, did you know that the work of these magical creatures can be halted by uttering a blessing? Why the fairies abandoned their work on the bridge is a moot point, but some say that a local man, marvelling at their bridge, exclaimed: ‘God bless the workmen!’ The fairies subsequently leapt into the sea, never to return to their bridge again. Today, their Golden Bridge is covered in shingle and sand, and many locals say that the noise of the tide is actually the moan of fairies lamenting the loss of their hard work.
If you plan to seek out Tinkerbell’s Celtic ancestors, though, please beware of Cù-sìth – a mythological hound who roams the Highland moors. As big as a cow, and boasting a shaggy, dark green coat of wirey hair, Cù-sìth can hunt in complete silence. If you do sense the hound, you’ll hear one bark, two barks, three barks, and will then be ‘overcome with terror’. You’ve been warned. If you do get caught by Cù-sìth, there is some hope. Our ‘native’ unicorns – which can only be captured by virgin maidens – are on hand with their magical blood. One sip of this and you’ll not only be cured, you’ll also be immortal.
As well as the Highlands’ local fairy folk and do-gooding unicorns, kelpies have had their share of attention in this region. Did you know that a kelpie has the power to summon a flood in order to sweep away unwanted guests? Now, there’s a thought… The trouble is, you have to know how to catch one. If you can grab hold of a kelpie’s bridle, you will be able to harness their strength (which is said to be equal to that of 10 horses). The MacGregor clan is rumoured to be in possession of such a bridle. Many moons ago, an ancestor took it from a kelpie near Loch Slochd, and it is still passed down the generations.
Tales of water horse spirits, fairies and multi-coloured unicorn blood will always be integral to the Highlands’ historical fabric, but there is one group of ‘magical’, mistreated beings yet to be mentioned, and the Highlands were (supposedly) full of them: witches. An estimated 4,000 people (mostly women) were trialled in Scotland in what was one of the most barbaric, significant miscarriages of justice our nation has known. Your crime might have been your red hair (a sure sign that you were possessed by a demonic spirit); your disabled offspring; or, conversely, your ability to heal the sick.
Wester Ross, Easter Ross and Sutherland were all riddled with ‘witches’, and Janet Horne, who was executed in Dornoch in 1727, was the last poor soul to be tried and burnt for witchcraft in the UK. Strike one for Janet? She gave birth to a daughter who had withered hands and feet. (Some believed Janet had tried to turn her daughter into a horse so that she could travel the countryside and practice her witchcraft, but had accidentally left the child with hooves). Strike two? In old age, Janet became confused, (showing signs of dementia). Her daughter escaped trial, but Janet was tried and executed by being tarred and burnt alive in a barrel. In her confusion, she smiled and warmed her hands on the fire that would shortly envelop her. Not even a decade after Janet’s death, witchcraft trials were outlawed. Today, you’ll find The Witch’s Stone, marking the site of her trial.