Tour the Land of the Unicorn: Scotland
This week, our virtual vacation travels to Scotland. While it may not be as famous for faeries and mystical locations as Ireland is, Scotland is an ancient Celtic land. Folklore and supernatural goings-on are just as prevalent here as on the Emerald Isle. In fact, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn. The Royal Coat of Arms for the United Kingdom has a lion for England along with a unicorn to symbolize Scotland. The country is filled with myth and folklore. Here is a small sampling.
Lochs and Streams
The Loch Ness Monster is the best known of Scotland’s mythical beings, but did you know there are a number of loch monsters? The second most famous is Morag. She lives in Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater lake in the British Isles. Unlike Nessie, she does not resemble a dinosaur. Descriptions of her appearance vary but one thing stays consistent: locals don’t want to see her. She only appears when someone is about to die!
Scotland has an abundance of beautiful lochs, rivers, and streams, but be careful near the water. 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 hit people with her stick and paralyzed them!
Also beware of horses near water in Scotland. They may be cute or even look lost. Don’t be fooled. They’re likely to be Kelpies, dangerous shape-shifting faeries. Kelpies appear as horses or ponies and encourage humans to ride them, but it’s a trap! The Kelpie will ride into the water, then drown and eat the person.
Metal sculptures of two giant Kelpie heads have been built next to the Firth and Clyde Canal in Grangemouth, Scotland, about a half-hour’s drive from Edinburgh. If you’d like to see what a Kelpie looks like (without risking death), the Scottish Canals website has a 360 ˚ virtual tour. Check it out by clicking here.
Lowlands / Anglo-Scottish Border
The lowlands don’t have as many places rich in folklore as the highlands and Scottish isles do, but Edinburgh Castle is said to be the most haunted place in Scotland. Its best known ghost is a headless drummer whose music has been heard frequently coming from the battlements. But he is seen, the locals say, only when the castle is in danger.
Silkies can be found near the southern border. They are female ghosts, dressed in silk, who help with household chores much like the famous Scottish faeries, the Brownies. In addition to doing chores, Silkies protect the household from harmful intruders. Unfortunately, they can be quite mischievous and play pranks. Sometimes they even make messes rather than clean them up. Note that Silkies are not the same as Selkies. Selkies are faeries who live in the waters near the northern Scottish isles. They look like seals but can shape-shift into human form and, occasionally, they marry humans.
Redcap, on the other hand, is neither mischievous nor helpful. He is a goblin who skulks about the ruined castles on the Anglo-Scottish border. Redcap got his name by soaking his cap in the blood of his victims. He resembles a short old man with long, gray hair.His eyes are large and fiery red. His bony fingers have talons and long teeth protrude from his mouth. Redcap carries a pike in his left hand and cannot be overcome by physical strength. The only way to defeat him is by quoting scripture or holding up a crucifix. At this, he will cry out and vanish in flames, leaving behind only a tooth.
The Scottish Isles fairly breathe myth and folklore. The Finfolk of the Orkney Islands are amphibious shape-shifters who marry humans but that’s where their similarity to Selkies stops. A Selkie woman will come ashore and shed her seal skin just to have a day at the beach. Unfortunately, if a human man finds and hides her skin, she will be forced to marry him. Even so, throughout their marriage, the Selkie will pine for the sea and do everything she can to find her skin. If she does, she will return to the sea even if it means deserting her children.
The Finfolk, male as well as female, actively seek out humans to marry. When they find one, they abduct them, marry them, and force them into lifelong servitude.
The Wulver of the Shetland Islands is an altogether nicer character. He resembles a werewolf but he is not nor never has been human. The Wulver doesn’t attack unless he feels threatened. Instead, he cares for poor people and kindly leaves fresh fish on their windowsills so they won’t starve.
The Isle of Skye, often wrapped in mist, has earned a reputation as an enchanted faerie isle but, if you have an interest in faeries (or, at least, faerie lore), don’t be misled by place names. Both the Fairy Pools and the Fairy Glen on Skye are exquisitely beautiful, almost otherworldly, places but neither has any connection to folklore. Instead, check out the Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle. An heirloom of Clan MacLeod, it is said to have been gifted to a MacLeod chieftain by the faeries. Magical powers attributed to the flag include being able to save the lives of clan members, increase fertility, and even bring herring into Dunvegan Loch. But according to legend, the flag could be used only three times, after which its bearer would be whisked away by an invisible being, never to be seen again. It has been unfurled more than three times with no such incident occurring. The clan says that the flag has become so tattered the faeries no longer want it back.
Perhaps the best place to find Scottish folk tradition is the highlands. They are alive with it. Here are just a few highlights.
Ben Nevis in the Western Highlands is the tallest mountain in Scotland. Mythology says it was created by Beira the Cailleach, the goddess of winter. To this day it is called Beira’s Throne. I’ve told the goddess’ story in the past. Click here to read about her annual battle with the goddess of spring. If you’d like to experience this mountain without leaving home, click here to see an interactive video with 360 degree breathtaking views of Ben Nevis.
Prefer ghost-hunting to mountain climbing? Pick a castle, almost any Scottish castle. Most have a resident ghost (or three) and many have a Green Lady. Green Ladies are female spirits who appear clothed in long green dresses. The most famous one haunts Fyvie Castle in Aberdeen. Read her story here.
If it’s faeries you want, the highlands have them. Among Scotland’s most famous faeries are the Brownies, the Cat Sith, and the Cu Sith, all of whom roam northern Scotland.
Brownies are small faeries who help humans by doing chores and tidying the house while the family sleeps.The most renowned of all is Maggie Moulach. She tended the chieftain of Clan Grant at Tullochgorm House in Grant Town on Spey. Also known as Hairy Meg, she is about two feet tall and has a great head of hair as well as hairy hands. Maggie not only kept house for the chieftain, she helped him win at chess and, when needed, acted as the family banshee. But the chieftain wasn’t the only human she ever helped. Folklore says she also assisted a farmer. She took such good care of him that the fool dismissed his farm hands, leaving all the work to Maggie. Never take a Brownie for granted! Insulted and enraged, Maggie turned into a Boggart, throwing things about and playing tricks on the farmer. He soon got the message and hired the hands back.
The Cat Sith and the Cu Sith are faeries but they’re no cute little butterfly beings. The Cat Sith looks like a large black cat the size of a dog. It often appears with its back arched, its hairs standing on end. Seeing a Cat Sith is worse than bad luck. The highlanders say this faerie is out to steal the souls of the unburied dead. So they developed the Feill Fadalach, the Late Wake. When someone dies, the corpse is watched twenty-four hours a day to protect the soul of the newly deceased until the funeral. Still, like most faeries, the Cat Sith isn’t all bad. On Samhain, it will bless any house where a saucer of milk is left out for the faerie to drink.
If you walk the highland moors, especially at night, you run the risk of hearing the cry of the Cu Sith. This faerie resembles a calf-sized dog with shaggy green hair. It roams the moors, hides in rock clefts, and hunts silently. Periodically, though, it will let out three baying barks. If you hear these, run for safety! Folklore says that any person who doesn’t reach safety by the third bay will die.
While you’re in the highlands, keep an eye out for the elusive Wild Haggis, a hairy goat-like animal said to live among the craggy cliffs. But you won’t find one. They’ve been so over-hunted…no, I’m only teasing. The traditional dish, haggis, is made from the organs of an ordinary sheep, but the Scots like to tell the Haggis legend to tourists just for a bit of fun.
Physical travel is difficult right now but, if the lore has intrigued you, it’s not too soon to plan an actual trip to Scotland. CIE offers tours to Scotland that can be done in a group or as an individual. Cathy Kelly, an independent travel agent with InteleTravel can help you plan and book your tour with the company. Email her at Kcathy999@gmail.com or call her at 954-695-7308 for more information.
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Tioraidh an-dràsta! (“Bye for now” in Scots Gaelic)
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