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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Mining Folk: Writing Prompts Inspired by Scottish Folklore

Updated: Jan 27


Kelpies, dangerous shapeshifting faeries of Scottish folklore, can provide a springboard for great fiction.
Kelpies, dangerous shapeshifting faeries of Scottish folklore, can provide a springboard for great fiction.

Inspiration is a wonderful thing but, as most working artists will tell you, you can’t sit around waiting to be inspired. You’ll never write anything! You have to be proactive and create or, at least, go find ideas to write about. I find inspiration in many places, even waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Celtic folklore is one of my favorite places to mine for inspiration. I’m not talking about stealing other people’s stories. I find that the various creatures and magical beings of Celtic folklore lead my imagination to a land where stories grow.

 

     A few years back, I wondered what it would be like to be a teenage faerie whose mother is a banshee. Would she want to hide that fact from her friends at school? And would she be destined to become a banshee too? One question led to another and, as I answered them, the story took form. It now is about something completely different than my original questions but the thoughts about a banshee’s daughter led me to write my novel, Music of Dragons.

 

     In today’s post, I want to share some writing prompts based on Scottish folklore. If you’re not a writer—and never plan to be one—read on anyway as I not only share writing prompts but the folklore that inspired them. Enjoy!

 

Bean Nighe


The eerie Bean Nighe foreshadows danger and death.
The eerie Bean Nighe foreshadows danger and death.

     Be careful going near the water in Scotland. In streams and rivers, you might see a Bean Nighe. Also known as the Washerwoman, she is a faerie and a banshee-type character. She appears as an old woman washing blood-stained clothes in rivers or streams. Like the Irish banshee, she is an omen of death. The Bean Nighe may grant wishes or reveal the names of those who are about to die. Still, I don’t recommend interacting with her. She has been known to hit people with her stick and paralyze them!

 

Prompt: You’re on vacation in Scotland, taking a lone walk through a highland forest. Following the sound of running water, you walk until you see a stream. In it is an old woman, washing blood from a shirt. What happens next?

 

Kelpies

     Another danger in Scottish waters—rivers, streams, or lochs—is that they are hangouts for Kelpies. These faeries look like horses or ponies and may seem cute or look lost. Don’t be fooled! They’re dangerous shape-shifting faeries. Kelpies encourage humans to ride them. Don’t! Once you’re on the Kelpie's back, you will not be able to get off. What happens next? The Kelpie rides into the water, drowns you, then eats you. So there. You've been warned.

 

Prompt: Write a short story from the Kelpie’s point of view.

    

Cat Sith

     If you like writing stories with a spooky bend, the Cat Sith is a great character to feature. This faerie appears in the form of a dog-sized black cat, its back arched and its hairs standing on end. This malevolent faerie, according to Highland folklore, is out to steal the souls of the unburied dead. So, the Scots developed the Feill Fadalach (Late Wake). When someone dies, family members and friends stay with the corpse twenty-four hours a day to protect the soul of the newly deceased until the funeral.

 

Prompt: Write an eerie story about a Late Wake and the arrival of the Cat Sith.


Beira, Goddess of Winter

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

     Also known as the Cailleach or “veiled one,” Beira is a shape-shifting goddess who brings winter on each year. Although she is a shapeshifter, generally she is depicted as a veiled old woman with extremely pale or even blue skin and rotting teeth and carries a magical hammer with which she controls storms and thunder. She appears frail but can leap across mountains and ride storm waves. You’d be unwise to mess with her. She makes the bean nighe seem like a cuddly puppy.

 

     Beira rules half the year, from Samhain (November 1st) to Beltane (May 1st). The other half of the year is ruled by the beautiful, young goddess of summer, Brigid. This is not a peaceful arrangement. According to folklore, these two goddesses battle it out for supremacy twice a year. Brigid emerges victorious each year sometime between February 1st (known in both Scotland and Ireland as Brigid’s Day) and May 1st (Beltane).

 

     Folklore says that, by February 1st, Beira is running out of firewood. On that day, she makes the weather nice so she can go out to collect more firewood without being hassled by the snowing and blowing of a Scottish winter. Thus, the lore explains, if the weather is mild on Brigid’s Day, winter will be long. However, if the weather is bad, it means that Beira has overslept, will run out of firewood, and winter soon will end.

 

Prompt: Write a story about Beira oversleeping then running into all sorts of trouble when she goes out to collect firewood. Have fun with it!

 

The Corryvreckan Whirlpool

     The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba off the west coast of the Scottish mainland. The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan is the third largest whirlpool in the world. The roar of it can be heard ten miles away. Beira, according to folklore, brings the winter on by washing her Great Plaid (a long blanket-like cloth wrapped around the body, belted at the waist, and pinned at the shoulder) in it. She throws her plaid into the whirlpool to clean it. After three days, when she retrieves the cloth, it has become completely white. When she spreads the cloth out, the land is blanketed in snow.

 

Brownies are Scottish faeries who work through the night to clean the house while the human family sleeps.
Brownies are Scottish faeries who work through the night to clean the house while the human family sleeps.

Prompt: Write a fantasy in which your protagonist’s boat gets sucked into the whirlpool and down into the depths of the gulf. Surviving this, the person discovers a magical land beneath the water. Describe the land, its inhabitants, and your protagonist’s adventure among them.

 

Brownies

     Brownies are house faeries. They’re short, hairy, and wear dirty rags for clothing but have a compulsion to clean that rivals that of Felix Unger. Brownies quietly work at night, cleaning the house, washing up dishes, collecting eggs from the hens, milking the cow, and so forth. They ask nothing in return except a bit of cream to drink. Just be sure never to insult them. This can be tricky as you never quite know what a Celtic faerie might find insulting. Tales tell of Brownies who got upset at being given clothes. Angry Brownies are destructive and spiteful. They throw things, hide things, and play nasty pranks on the family. And folklore warns that even if the family moves away, the Brownie will follow, take up residence in their new house, and keep harassing them!

Prompt: Write a story about an angry Brownie either from the family’s point of view or from the faerie’s.

 

Ghosts

      There are ghosts throughout Scotland, mostly in castles, but they can be found elsewhere too. One story tells of a female ghost who haunts a castle. She appears in complete bodily form except for her face. It’s been rubbed out. I have told this story in a previous post and explained the reason her face is missing but I’m not going to tell you here as that’s the major element of the prompt.

Prompt: Write a story about a ghost with no face and either have your protagonist be someone in the castle who wants to learn her story or write about the ghost herself and her desire to connect with someone who will see her for who she is so she can regain her identity.


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Slán go fóill


     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.


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