Skip to content

Creatures Of Scottish Folklore

January 29, 2014

Scotland is a picturesque country which can boast of a rich culture sculpted by both history and fantasy. Tales of supernatural creatures who sometimes cross over the veil between this world and the next have been told for thousands of years.

I have lived in Scotland for 8 years now, and in that time I’ve read a great deal of literature on the subject.

Of course I am not going to sit here and plagiarize all of the stories that I have read.

Instead I have written a brief introduction on a handful of creatures that I have been able to dig up through various sources in my own personal library and from various internet sources as well. Some creatures you may recognize in other incarnations from films or story books. Some may be entirely new to you.

I am hopeful that this page will serve its purpose in planting the seeds to increase the general appreciation for the broader spectrum of Scotland’s supernatural culture beyond the iconic loch monster.

Note: Originally I published this article on Squidoo in 2013

Fairies

The most appropriate place to begin is of course with fairies because nearly every creature in Scottish mythology has their roots in fairy kind. There are a few entities that are unique to Scottish mythology, however most of the creatures that you will find in this page are repeated in various incarnations throughout the world.

Historically the existence of fairies justified unexplained phenomenon. For example, why food spoils or why disease occurs. The combination of ignorance and the unlimited creativity of the human imagination has conjured and developed centuries of precious fantasy and folklore that has been preserved in both art and literature for future generations.

Of course even today in our more scientifically oriented age there are still people who believe adamantly in the existence of fairies.

There are a number of ideas surrounding the origins of fairy kind which include but are not limited to theories that they are angels cast out of Heaven who fell short of Hell, or that they are truly ancient beings, the first indigenous inhabitants of our planet who operate on an alternative dimensional plane and adhere to a different set of physical and temporal laws. Some say they are the old gods of ancient history who have been mostly forgotten but are still kept alive in active worship within pagan belief structures.

The common themes in any fairy stories that I’ve come upon are that fairies come in all shapes and sizes and they are both masculine and feminine. Some are primarily good, some are primarily evil and some are undecided tricksters who amuse themselves by interacting with the human race by way of an endless assortment of physical and auditory manifestations.

Today, in generalized pop culture fairies have been painted in a very positive light and as a result most people would probably like to meet one if given the opportunity, however in times long since past they were very much feared and avoided. Sometimes gifts of milk and cake were left to appease them or charms were made to ward them away outright.

Fairies were believed to be responsible for crib death, and the death or disappearance of a mother following childbirth. Sometimes the people in these scenarios were not thought to be dead but were believed to have been abducted and replaced with very clever effigies carved out of wood thus giving the appearance of a corpse.

There are numerous stories regarding someone bearing witness to either the exchange or the plot to replace a new mother or infant with an effigy and how the faeries are very luckily intercepted. It was theorized that faeries wanted new human mothers in order to nurse their own sickly young. It was also possible (in theory) for the fairies to make an exchange of a living unattractive fairy child (or elderly faerie depending on who you ask) for the human one, these are called changelings.

If a changeling was suspected by the human parents they could easily determine that their fears were justified by tossing the infant in the fire. If it started to talk or ran away then they were absolutely correct and could rejoice in their clever annihilation of the evil fairy (in some cases, but not all their own child would then be returned to the parents), however if it burned to death like a normal, every day baby thrown into the family hearth, then they had clearly made a serious error and were left with a very unfortunate char grilled corpse.

The myth of fairies collecting human children possibly came to be as a way of explaining away physical deformities, physical or mental disabilities or seemingly unnatural talents. It also served the purpose of scaring children into behaving lest their parents allow the faeries to take them away.

There are also numerous stories of faeries interfering with time. For example, a human may find themselves in the company of faeries for what seems to be hours and when they return home they find that in fact several years have passed. This is a situation that could be both fascinating and terrifying if you truly believed in the possibility.

The color primarily associated with faerie kind is green. This color is repeated in many of the sections within this page. Fairies also delight in music and have a deep rooted aversion or allergy to iron so many charms that involve keeping away or warding off fairies include cold iron.

For all the negative associations made with Fairy kind they could also be helpful if they chose to be, however any myths painting them in a positive light were looked down on and beaten into submission when Christianity was introduced to the region.

Under the Christian belief structure fairies were not just brushed off as fantasy, instead they were widely acknowledged as demons. Therefore a great number of charms involving the deterrence of faeries were also Christian in nature.

Bean Nighe

The Bean Nighe is a single being as opposed to a race of supernatural creatures and is sort of the Scottish equivalent of the Irish Banshee.

The Banshee wails to foretell an upcoming family tragedy, however the Bean Nighe manifests differently as she foretells death by appearing as a washerwoman at the bank of various bodies of water scrubbing the bloody clothes of the soon to be deceased.

She appears most often as an elderly woman and she is quite unsurprisingly associated with the color green. The source of her power is said to be in her single nostril, similar to the Kelpie. (Magical snot cracks me up)

There are tales of Bean Nighe which do not involve the foretelling of death, such as when she requests assistance crossing a body of water. If she is treated well she may grant wishes to the individual who has assisted her.

Brownie

Primarily the brownie characters in folklore are male however a couple of stories do exist with reference to a female counterpart. In favor of the majority I will refer to brownies in the masculine for the purpose of this summary.

The brownie, so called for the thick brown hair said to cover his body is a helpful domestic creature who freely attaches himself to a family (as opposed to homestead) for generations. The brownie will take up residence with his family and will make his home in an unused portion of the house. Though most often the family will know where the brownie’s area is, it is very important that they do not let on to their knowledge and leave the area undisturbed.

A brownie’s main compulsion is to be helpful; however since he does not wish to be seen or directly acknowledged he will generally carry out any chores which he assigns to himself during the night while the family sleeps or when they aren’t home.

Brownies are incredibly contradictive creatures and though they wish to be appreciated in their work they will leave the family if any thankfulness is shown in an outright fashion. So to keep a brownie happy you can not:

1. Thank him directly
2. Give him explicit credit for the work he has done
3. Leave presents that are clearly meant for him (though leaving food out overnight “carelessly” will be quite happily received by the brownie)
4. Criticise any work that he has done however slightly, offhandedly or unintentionally
5. Ignore him completely and pretend not to notice his efforts at all

If the resident family is guilty of anything from this list the brownie may take great offense and will most often times depart in such a way that will let the family know how hurt and betrayed he feels. Sometimes however for less serious offenses in the area of appreciation, the brownie will not leave and will make messes as well as loud noises in the night to take revenge on the family for their lack of gratitude.

Cailleach

The Cailleach is an ancient single entity or goddess of the highlands. Essentially she is the personification of winter and is the protector of wild animals during times of harsh weather. She is always described as an old woman or hag and is associated with the color blue. She carries a magical staff which freezes the ground as she leaps between hilltops bringing snow and frost. During warmer months she spends her time resting in the form of stone. Her size varies between tales from that of a titan to that of an average woman. In her larger manifestation she is said to have formed the shape of the land by dropping stones from her pockets.

The Cailleach does not typically go out of her way to cause trouble for human beings however she has been known to redirect hunters away from game which can result in their untimely demise when they become lost and freeze to death. Sometimes she may appear to hunters outright in order to scare them away from game. Having said that, if a cull is necessary she has also been known to guide hunters toward game.

Ghillie Dhu

The Ghillie Dhu is not only a lovely pub in Edinburgh which you really should make a point of visiting if you haven’t already, it is also a character of Scottish mythology of whom there is very little literature that I’ve been able to track down.

The widely published singular paragraph circulating about the internet seems to state that he is a masculine tree spirit who chooses to manifest as a skinny boy clothed in leaves and moss. He has dark hair and is particularly attracted to birch trees. The Ghillie Dhu may pull relatively benign pranks on people who pass through his territory.

Glastig

The Glastig is a unique type of creature in that it begins always as a mortal woman. The woman somehow provokes a fairy and she is turned into an immortal Glastig (typically) as punishment. So basically, she is not born a fairy but is made one of fairy kind. Glastigs are not ghosts.

Glastigs tend to be attached to farms and can be guardians of domesticated cattle. They may also look after children or simple minded adults. They are often associated with the color of the faeries which is of course green and in some stories they have the feet or bottom half of a goat however the goat portion of the Glastig is often covered by a flowing green robe.

Primarily Glastigs are painted in a fairly benevolent light, however they are sometimes associated with malevolent actions such as appearing to men with promises of sexual favors and then murdering them leaving the corpses exsanguinated, a practice also associated with the Baobhan Sith however there isn’t much literature available on the later entity.

The less blood thirsty variety of Glastig may help with chores such as milking or feeding livestock and protecting them from predators, however if a Glastig does not feel appreciated she can also cause problems by neglecting the chores which the family has become reliant on or setting the animals loose to wander.

The way to pay homage to the resident Glastig is by leaving gifts of fresh milk in stone bowls (typically a bowl shape carved into a larger stone) at predesignated Glastig offering places.

Haggis

The haggis is a relatively new addition to Scotland as an animal rather than a national dish. (Mostly I speculate that this is due to a combination of aspects including the irresistible opportunity for locals to mess with the tourists and the prospect of cashing in on haggis related trinkets in gift shops.)

Due to their tasty nature it is believed that the haggis has been hunted nearly to extinction. Historically no haggis has ever been known to survive in captivity. The dish which is served today consisting of sheep innards, barley and spices is the closest comparison in taste and texture that has been achieved to date….

The haggis is a round furry mammal indigenous to Scotland who thrives in cold wet miserable weather and darkness. Their colors range from grey and white and various shades of brown and red. For the most part they are nocturnal creatures which accounts for their disproportionately prominent eyeballs.The diet of the haggis is comparable to that of all small furry round creatures in similar habitats and ranges from juicy or crunchy invertebrates to rough foliage.

Within the highlands of Scotland the haggis has developed a unique physical attribute by which one set of legs grows longer than the other. Of course in the animal kingdom most four legged critters have one set of legs longer than the other however the unique point with the haggis is that the longer set is either on the left or the right as opposed to the front or the back. It is theorized that this enables the haggis to run along hills faster (at least in one direction).

Haggises are highly territorial creatures which in combination with their generally antisocial nature makes them difficult to hunt. As a result haggis is primarily captured during their mating season (November-December) when they gather in groups to procreate.

As haggises have not been able to be held in captivity or observed for any length of time in the wild, their natural life span is presently unknown.

When a wild haggis is prepared, very little goes to waste.

First the haggis is skinned very carefully so as to disturb the pelt as little as possible. If the pelt is of good quality it can be made into a sporran at a later date to celebrate the rare, victorious capture of the tasty critter.

Next the haggis’s various orifices are sewn shut or tied off and the legs/feet are removed leaving the nutritious body sack intact and ready to be boiled for several hours in a pot of water.

After the body sack has been thoroughly cooked the haggis is removed from the pot, and is traditionally served with an assortment of root vegetables. If a haggis has been prepared correctly all of its internal structures (mostly cartilage AKA “chewy bits”) dissolve so the sack can be cut open and the insides served in their entirety.

Kelpie

In terms of Scottish Mythology the kelpie is one of the better known entities. Though mainly portrayed as manifesting physically in the form of a beautiful horse the kelpie can also appear in the guise of a handsome young man.

The name kelpie refers to a race of creatures rather than a specific entity. They are aquatic spirits and each kelpie belongs to a particular body of water.

The kelpie is a purely malevolent creature who exists only to lure human beings into a watery grave. There can be only skepticism in regard to any reason or logic behind the kelpie’s obvious disdain for the human race.

In some tales it is said that the source of a kelpie’s power is in its nostril (not both just one) which is quite amusingly not the only mention of magical nostrils in Scottish folklore. (see also Bean Nighe)

The way a kelpie dispatches its chosen victim (usually a child or young woman) is by appearing in one of its most appealing forms. The victim is then intrigued by the creature, approaches it and somehow makes physical contact. Once physical contact has been established the victim becomes fused to the creature as it makes a frantic dash for the water. Unless the victim can detach his or herself they are dragged to the bottom of the loch or river until they are drowned, and devoured. The only way to detach ones self from a kelpie is to either cut off the affected limb (hand/finger etc) or on very rare and lucky occasion by tearing away and removing the affected article of clothing.

Primarily the mythology surrounding these creatures leans toward that of a message of warning. “water is dangerous” “wild animals are also dangerous” and “running off with strange men is generally a bad idea”.

There have been attempts made in fiction to redeem the kelpie by promoting that they aren’t all evil and have been given a bad name however it seems more like these people are trying to invent another race of mythological beings because they wicked totally love poniez (a swift kick in the face may be in order) so in my happy opinion these particular individuals should really just lay off the “Kelpie” idea and come up with something else to promote their equine fantasies.

Mermaids

Often (and justly) seen as bad omens, Mermaids are vain and spiteful creatures who should not to be confused with the gentler and somewhat less deadly Selkie.

On an island there are bound to be numerous tales of sea monsters however Scottish mermaids do not only inhabit the oceans and seas but they also have a tendency to swim their way into rivers and lakes to take up lodging as the resident demon.

In stories mermaids will often mimic a drowning woman to lure an unsuspecting good Samaritan to his or her death. (usually his) however there are a couple of stories where a mermaid has loved a human man and has cared for him, even bearing his child in one instance only to be abandoned as soon as the man gets a better offer which then sets her up to be even more evil and spiteful towards humans.

Nessie

The idealistic fantasy that a mysterious creature dwells deep within the black peat filled waters of Loch Ness has fueled imaginations for generations. The Loch Ness Monster is a relatively new addition to Scotland’s array of mythological beasties beginning its rise to fame in 1933. Nessie is quite possibly the most publicized and best marketed monster in Britain.

The creature is not bestowed with mystical gifts and its only talent seems to be its incredibly elusive nature. Nessie is unique however in that a great deal of money has been spent in attempts to prove its actual existence or at least the possibility of its existence. Though these attempts have been unsuccessful to date millions of people all over the world still hold out hope that solid, indisputable proof will one day surface from the depths. (There is a similar monster reported in Lake Champlain, North America as well but I believe Nessie wins in terms of racking up the dough between documentaries, books, scientific studies and tourism)

Hoaxes have done their part to fuel Nessie mania however photographs and first hand accounts still exist which remain unexplained and the people supplying the information are emphatically adamant that the evidence is genuine.

There is a great deal of speculation regarding what the creature is if it does exist. The most widely published version would be that it is in fact a giant reptile who somehow survived extinction from times when dinosaurs inhabited the planet. Though reptiles can have extremely long life spans, millions of years is stretching it a bit far. It is also unlikely that something cold blooded would fare very well in a loch which averages 42F (5.5C) however I’m going to stop myself there because there are many resources which go into vast detail on the subject and explain it in much more depth than I have any interest in accomplishing in this page.

Other theories include that the monster is in fact a Kelpie an elephant or a lump of floating wood.

Red Cap

The Redcap is the most evil of all Scottish supernatural beings. They haunt ruined fortresses and castles along the borders region and delight in brutally murdering unsuspecting passers by.

They are described as scrawny old men of unnatural strength and short stature who have pointed teeth and a red cap upon their heads. The common fairy allergy to iron does not apply with the redcap as he can wield iron to dispatch his victim.

It is said that the redcap must saturate his cap regularly in human blood because if it should dry out the creature would perish.

The most renowned location in Scotland which is well-known for its resident redcap is Hermitage Castle. Seeing this castle in person is breathtaking. All that is left of the mammoth structure is a beautiful ruin and the feeling you get once inside is almost indescribable, but in my personal experience not at all menacing.

Selkie

Selkies are a race of gentle and beautiful humanoid creatures who live under the sea and utilize a magical skin to turn themselves into seals so that they can travel in water. They must remove the seal skin in order to change to human form and live out of water. If a selkie is careless and loses the skin they will be trapped without a way to return home.

Both male and female selkies are valued as human lovers and if a human should steal the selkie’s skin they will be forcibly bound to that person and will marry them, even producing children for years until they are able to locate the skin and return to the sea.

Trow

A trow is a type of grotesque fairy who is specific to the Shetland and Orkney islands. They are quite fond of music and share the common fairy allergy to iron. On rare occasion a Trow may bestow a magical fairy talent or monetary wealth upon a human.

In fact there are many aspects to trow legends that mirror those of generic fairies throughout Britain however there are some unique points such as their physical appearance which sets them apart as a race.

They are particularly short in stature, unattractive, and generally unpleasant. Their origins are believed to have derived from the Norse Troll (as a miniature version) however this point is somewhat disputed.

Trows are a nocturnal variety of fairy and though they like to visit human homes to warm themselves on dying fires as the inhabitants sleep (or lie awake terrified) they make their own homes outdoors under earthen mounds where they spend their daylight hours. It is particularly dangerous to disturb any earthen mound just in case it is inhabited by an ill tempered Trow.

As trows are so very ugly they became a primary source for legends of changelings and were very much feared as a result. The belief that they could enter your home whenever they wanted, particularly when you are most vulnerable (asleep) opened the door for the development of all sorts of superstitions and protection charms.

Will-O-The-Wisp

Will-O-The-Wisps, also called Jack-O-Lanterns are entities without defined purpose, often thought to be mischievous spirits. They manifest as flickering (frequently green) light in the form of orbs, flame or fog appearing above or around swamp or marsh land. They have a tendency to prey upon the inquisitive nature of human beings by appearing to them in the dark or near dark and leading them away from familiar territory by moving slowly further away as they are approached.

Though popular in Scottish folklore the event of observing a Will-O-The-Wisp is not unique to Scotland and its signature is in fact repeated in many cultures all over the world. Aside from folklore they are also very well documented in photographs and various literature of unexplained phenomenon.

Theories to attempt to explain the manifestation of a Will-O-The-Wisp include all varieties of paranormal beings including deceased human spirits as well as the perfectly natural explanation of swamp gas and ambient reflections of the moon.

Witches

Believing in supernatural powers attributed to living people is as old as time and manifests quite clearly all over the world in probably every culture. For some societies these magical people are respected holy men or women and for others, they are feared and considered to be evil.

Within Europe, Scotland was particularly renowned for its persecution and slaughter of men and women thought to be malevolent witches. “Witches” is a category which fits only loosely within this page and I considered not including it at all however I think that they are worth mentioning if only in passing because the belief in witches and witchcraft was so deeply rooted and strong here at one point that it went beyond folklore and inspired several, well documented real witch hunts resulting in the brutal execution of thousands of innocent people.

Like fairies, witches were blamed for unexplained phenomenon such as illness, stillbirth and even sour milk. Basically anything that common folk could not work out the cause of, but  unfortunately witches, unlike faeries were tangible because they were people and this is what made them a popular target for ignorant fear.

********************************************************************************

There are a few creatures I haven’t included here that I need to research a bit more (For example, Am Fear Liath Mor ), this article has been a work in progress for a couple of years and it subject to change as and when my knowledge of the subject increases.

I also haven’t included “ghosts” here because they really probably do deserve their own write up.  Just about every place in this country is said to be haunted.

So if you have actually read through this incredibly long winded article of mine and find yourself upon this last sentence, I hope that you found out some things that you weren’t previously familiar with and that it has inspired new curiosities within you that you will take forward and pass along to other like minded individuals.

Advertisements

From → Scotland

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: