There are many supernatural creatures to be found in Scottish folklore. This Halloween, we’d like to introduce you to a few of our favourites and let you hear the stories told by people around Scotland.
The Mythical Scottish Water Horse
The kelpie is a water spirit which often takes the form of a horse and is found in lochs, pools and rivers. There are many bodies of water in Scotland which have stories about kelpies associated with them. The kelpie appeared tame on land but if anyone sat on its back, it would gallop into the water and the unfortunate victim would never be seen again.
The kelpie could also take human form, usually that of a handsome man, who would attract and seduce young girls. Their identity could be betrayed by the presence of sand or water weeds in their hair, or hooves on their feet. However, this was often only discovered once it was too late!
In the song ‘A Ghaoil Leig Dhachaigh gu Mo Mhàthair Mi’, the girl appeals to the kelpie (‘each-uisge’ in Scottish Gaelic) to let her go home to her mother. It is sung here by Kate Nicolson from the island of South Uist.
In this story a young Traveller boy meets a man who is fishing on the other side of the river. The man tricks him into deep water and the boy sees that the man has cloven feet. He realises the man is actually a kelpie, this time taking the form of half man and half horse. The boy runs for his life and later learns that many people have previously drowned at that spot. The story is told by Stanley Robertson, a renowned storyteller and singer from Aberdeen.
The belief in kelpies performed a useful function in deterring children from going near dangerous stretches of water. It also served as a warning to young women to keep away from handsome strangers!
Don’t Annoy the Brownies
There are various descriptions of creatures known as brownies. Generally, they are depicted as small creatures, usually male, with reddish brown hair. They are shy creatures who like to remain unseen and who help with household and farming tasks at night, while their human counterparts are asleep.
Traditionally they receive small gifts of food in exchange for their labours and will abandon a dwelling if these offerings are referred to as payments, or if anyone in the household mistreats them. Brownies prefer to live in unused parts of a building, such as an attic.
This story tells of an elderly miller who is no longer able to carry on working and cannot afford to take on a young man to help. He is worried that he will have to give up the business but when he wakes one morning he finds all the work has been done. One night he hides behind some sacks to find out the identity of his helper and sees that it is a small group of brownies.
The miller and his wife decide they should give the brownies some food as they are working so hard. But when they leave out bread and cheese, the brownies leave, saying, “He’s paid me off,” and never come back. The story is told by Bryce Whyte and in his version he states that the brownies did not like to receive any payment at all, not even food.
Less Ariel, More Ursula…
The mermaid is a legendary sea creature with the head and upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. Mermaids commonly appear in Scottish folklore as unlucky omens, sometimes provoking disaster and sometimes predicting it. This is in sharp contrast to modern myths, in which they are depicted as being kind and benevolent to humans.
Roderick MacKinnon from South Uist tells a story about the crew of a fishing boat who see a mermaid. There was a tradition that if a mermaid was seen, then everyone on board had to throw something to her. The skipper puts his hands in his pockets but only has a knife. He throws this to her, she catches it, and then disappears. This is a sign that the skipper is to drown but nobody wants to tell him this. He and another man drown the following spring.
A changeling child was believed to be a fairy child or elderly fairy who had been left by fairies in place of a human child. The human child would then be brought up by the fairies. Children were believed to be more susceptible to being stolen prior to being baptised.
There are different theories as to why a human child might be taken. Some believed that it was to exchange a sickly or unattractive fairy child for a healthy, beautiful human child. Others thought that it was out of spite, or that the child would be taken to work as a servant. There was also a theory that fairies believed it was more respectable for fairy children to be raised by humans. In the case of elderly fairies being swapped, it was thought that they would be able to live in comfort, cherished by their human parents.
Incessant crying, constant feeding or eating vast amounts of food, or the ability to speak at a very young age were all signs that a child could be a changeling.
There were various ways of exposing a changeling and getting one’s own child back. One method was to expose the changeling to fire. The child would be held closely in front of the fire or suspended in a basket over it. If it was a changeling it would make its way up the chimney, sometimes hurling insults as it disappeared. Other methods included threatening to expose it to water or to telling it that the fairy hill was on fire.
In this story a women’s child is taken by the fairies and is replaced with a changeling. The child eats constantly and this arouses the woman’s suspicions. One day she pretends to leave the house but secretly watches through the window. The child begins to play the chanter and she realises he is in fact a changeling. She is advised by an old man to take the child to the shore and leave him on a rock as the tide comes in. The changeling takes on his real form – an old fairy man! The woman refuses to rescue him until she gets her own child back. The story is told by Nan MacKinnon from the island of Vatersay.
In this story from the Shetland Islands, Brucie Henderson tells of a man who is working in a peat bank when a boy, aged about eight and covered in hair, jumps out of a crack in the ground. The man offers to feed the boy, who replies that he eats heather and the black bull’s bladder. The man takes him home and the boy threatens to blow like the north wind and blow down the house if they do not release him at once. They realise he is a fairy changeling.
Am Fear Liath Mòr (Big Grey Man)
The first recorded encounter with “The Big Grey Man” (Am Fear Liath Mòr in Scottish Gaidhlig) was reported over 100 years ago in 1891. The Big Grey Man is similar to the ‘Big Foot’ mythology, however, descriptions of the creature vary wildly from encounter to encounter. That being said, there are many parts of the story that remain consistent across encounters.
Am Fear Liath Mòr is said to reside on the highest peak of the cairngorms (which is the second-highest peak in Scotland). Those who claim to have seen The Big Grey Man have described it as “an extremely tall figure covered with short hair”, “a large humanoid standing over ten feet tall and having olive-toned skin with long arms and broad shoulders” and as simply “an unseen presence that causes uneasy feelings in people who climb the mountain”. Despite these variations in appearance, almost every encounter includes the same detail: the sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel, always just out of sight. Evidence of Am Fear Liath Mòr is sparse, comprising of only a few photographs of unusual footprints.
Baobhan Sith: The Female Vampire
The baobhan sith is a beautiful female vampire, who shares traits with succubus and fairy folklore. The baobhan sith seduces her male victims with her beauty, hiding the deer hooves that she has instead of feet, under a long green dress. She drinks their blood and then disappears as soon as the sun begins to rise. She takes her escape in the form of a crow or raven, rather than the traditional bat.
A common theme that emerges after countless retellings of encounters with baobhan sith involves hunters and a desire for company. Usually, hunters camping or taking refuge in a cave or forest overnight, at some point wish for the company of a woman. This can be in the form of wishing that their own sweethearts were there with them, wishing for someone to dance with, or wishing for companionship. Shortly (sometimes immediately) after making the wish, the baobhan sith arrive, either alone or in groups, and all of those who made the wish get attacked and killed. Such stories come from lone men who claim to have survived as they were the only person to have not made a wish, as a result, the baobhan sith did not notice him and he was able to escape.
In other versions of this lore, it is sometimes said that Baobhan Sith are women who have died in childbirth and who return after being granted eternal life.
The bean-nighe (washerwoman) is a type of banshee, said to haunt streams and rivers. She is regarded as an omen of death and a messenger from ‘the other side’. In the streams that she haunts, she washes the clothes and death shrouds of those who are about to die.
In different areas of Scotland, she has different descriptions. On the Isle of Skye The Washerwoman is said to be small and squat, often passing as a pitiful child, rather than an old woman. She is also small in the Perthshire version of the tale, however she is also round and fat, and dresses all in green.
How you can catch the bean-nighe, and what she does upon being caught, also varies between regions. In some places you can catch her by putting yourself between her and the stream. In other tales you must sneak up on her, and must grab her by surprise, without her noticing you. It is also rumoured that if she sees you first, she will take one of your limbs as punishment.
When you catch The Washerwoman, she will answer all of your questions and reveal to you, your ultimate fate, however, you must also answer all of her questions truthfully in return. In other tellings of this tale, catching the woman will allow you to learn who is about to die, grant you three wishes and you may ask anything of her.
Historically, there is a Highland tale that recounts of a woman walking along a loch in Cromarty on a Sunday morning. While walking she spotted bean-nighe washing over 30 different bloodied shirts in the loch. After seeing the bean-nighe and returning to the village, the roof of the Fearn Abbey collapsed during the Sunday morning service and killed 36 people. The abbey roof collapsing is recorded in written history, having happened in 1742.
Beast of Buchan
Beast of Buchan is one of many ‘Big Cat’ legends that exist within the UK. Written recordings of the Beast of Buchan date back almost 100 years to the 1930s, however, oral reports of the Beast date back as far as 1760s according to the legend. It is reported that as many as 2000-7000 sightings of ‘Big Cats’ or ‘Phantom Cats’ such as The Beast of Buchan happen annually.
In the tales, The Beast of Buchan is a large black cat or green cat, similar to a panther (sometimes being reported as the size of a labrador), which preys on local livestock such as sheep. Instances of livestock being attacked by The Beast became so prolific that it has been raised on more than one occasion in the Scottish Parliament. Tales of people being attacked by The Beast of Buchan are rare, however, one woman has reported being bitten and clawed at by the creature upon leaving a stable. This attack was witnessed by a friend and she retained visible evidence, such as bruising and puncture wounds. A farmer in Scotland found a partial carcass of a creature he believes is The Beast, on his land following some of his sheep being attacked and killed.
Beithir-nimh (Venemous Serpent)
The beithir-nimh is described as being either the most dangerous and venomous snake to ever live, or as a type of wingless dragon that cannot breathe fire. It is huge and lives inside caves and valleys. If you try to approach it, it will sting you with its venomous stinger. Once you are stung, you must race the beithir-nimh to the nearest river or loch. If you win the race then you will be cured, but if you lose the race then you will die no matter what you do.
A beithir-nimh is created when you kill a normal snake, but fail to separate the head and the body by enough distance. The dead snake will join back up and come back to life as a beithir-nimh. You can see the snake from a distance on summer nights, during a lightning strike.
Blue Men of the Minch
The Blue Men are said to originate from a set of fallen angels. One group of the fallen angels became the northern lights confined to the sky, the second group became the fairies confined to the land, the last group became The Blue Men confined to the sea. The Blue Men are around the same size as human men, except they have long arms. They are said to be grey when out of the water, but the sea gives them a blue hue.
At first sight, the blue men appear to be calm and fun-loving. They float under the surface of the water gently, twist about like porpoises at the surface or play shinty together. However, when a boat starts to pass by the chief of The Blue Men shouts out the lines of a poem. If someone on the ship cannot respond with the following lines, The Blue Men give themselves permission to attack the ship and bring it down. The Blue Men are cruel in this regard and are said to roar with joyous laughter as a ship capsizes. The Blue Men are also said to be responsible for sending storms unannounced.
A tale from 1917 details an encounter that a sailor had when he was able to snatch up a Blue Man and he floated under the water. He claims to have tied the Blue Man to the mast, but that two Blue Men chased the ship to get their friend back. They shouted to the captive and revealed that they seem to give each other human names. The Blue Man was able to free himself and jump overboard back into the water. There are no tales of anyone being able to kill these demons.
The Boobrie is a shapeshifting creature that lives in and around lochs in Scotland. It can take the form of a water bull, a large insect with tentacles and a water horse, but prefers to take the form of a bird-like creature. Regardless of what form the creature takes it can make a loud bellowing sound that sounds like a bull. The Boobire has also been heard to have spoken in a human voice, singing a verse in Gaidhlig.
The Boobrie is said to be malevolent but does not prey on people. Instead, it preys on livestock that is transported in ships, with sheep being its favourite. It also enjoys eating the otters native to the waters where it resides. There have been claims of the Boobrie not defending itself when attacked, such as being shot at by a hunter, instead choosing to flee, usually diving deep below the waters out of reach.
The Cirein-cròin is a giant sea monster from Gaidhlig mythology, said to be similar in resemblance to a dinosaur. The Cirein-cròin is so large that it takes 7 whales to be able to fill it entirely. To be able to avoid detection, capture and attack it can change its shape to that of a small, delicate, silver fish. It is also said that it uses this disguise to capture prey. Fishermen would capture the tiny fish, only for it to transform and eat all of those on board.
The Fachan is a grotesque looking giant, said to be metaphorically “half a human”. Similar to a cyclops, it has one eye in the middle of its face. It has no arms, instead having just one hand that grows straight out of the middle of its chest. It also only has one leg. In some reports, it is covered in blue feathers too. It has a single tuft of hair on its head, however, this tuft is strong and uncuttable.
The Ghillie Dhu is a male fairy who prefers to be solitary. He is small, with dark hair and lives in the forest. He uses his forest surroundings to source clothes for himself, using moss and leaves. The Ghillie Dhu is very gentle in nature and has a fondness for children. If a child gets lost in the woods, the Ghillie Dhu will look after them overnight and then during the day help return them to their homes.
Despite their caring nature, human beings have attempted to hunt them. A group of men went out into the woods at night time to hunt the Ghillie Dhu, but they were unable to find him. Following the hunt, the Ghillie Dhu was never seen again, perhaps scared off for good.
The Nuckelavee is a skinless horse-like demon, which is described as being particularly vile with no redeeming qualities at all. People are so terrified of The Nuckelavee that they do not even say its name without immediately following it with a prayer. It is described as having a mans torso attached to a horse’s back, as though a rider were sitting on the horse. The creature has two heads, one a horse head on the horse body, and one a giant human head on the torso. The breath that comes from either of these head is enough to make crops wither and die, and livestock get sick.
The Nuckelavee is said to fix his red eyes on you. When The Nuckelavee is angered and displeased it can cause giant plagues, resulting in the deaths of people, animals and plants, and droughts.
The Pech is a short gnome creature which is an enemy to the Scots. They are said to have been native to Scotland, and an aboriginal race which built some of the standing stones in ancient Scotland. They battled with the modern Scots when they appeared, it is unknown what happened exactly, but since they are not around it is assumed that they lost. As such their talent for brewing heather ale was also lost. It is unknown how The Pech could have lost any fight when they were so strong that they can crush metal with their bare hands, even when old and infirm.
The Sea Mither is a peaceful entity that controls and calms the sea, she can even occasionally control the Nuckelavee and sometimes prevent him from taking out his wrath on the innocent humans. She cannot be seen by the human eye and has never presented a form to humans, so there is no recording of what she may look like.
The Sea Mither has an arch-enemy that she occasionally fights with, named Teran. These fights cause gales and rough seas, but The Sea Mither always wins the fights and returns the Earth to a calm state. She is able to give all sea and ocean-dwelling beings the ability to reproduce and propagate life. She softens the summer winds so that they are like a song, and is so trusted by the humans that they call upon her to protect them from evil and the devil.
The Sluagh is a restless spirit, the ghost of the unsettled dead. There are various explanations as to why these spirits are not able to move on, the most generally accepted is that these souls believed to the truly evil; those who were not welcome in heaven, hell, the Otherworld or Earth. These spirits are destructive and can cause trouble for those who are able to perceive them.
The Sluagh also attempted to disrespect the souls of those who were good, by attempting to enter the house of a person who was dying, and steal their spirit before it had a chance to move on to its resting place. Innocent spirits that were stolen in this manner would join the army of The Sluagh until it was a flying flock, resembling a flock of dark birds.
The Wulver is a humanoid-wolf hybrid. It is similar to a werewolf in appearance, however, is it discretely different from a werewolf. A Wulver has never been human, and as such does not undergo a transformation. It is an immortal spirit that has always existed in its current form. Unlike werewolves, it is also peaceful and does not attack humans. In fact, The Wulver is said to live in harmony with humans, so long as they do not bother him. It lives in a cave and spends days fishing in the nearby rivers. It was once recorded in 1932, that The Wulver was even kind enough to leave a fish on the windowsill of a man that was too poor to be able to afford food.