FROM ghosts and goblins to sea monsters and cannibals, Scottish history is littered with tales of the weird and wonderful. While some Scottish legends have become much-loved parts of our culture, other stories have disappeared into obscurity over the centuries.
Now Glasgow University is set to revive Scotland‘s folklore thanks to a new postgraduate course examining mythical creatures, superstitions, beliefs and the storytelling that kept them alive. Here’s a look at just some of the myths and legends that got handed down through the generations.
MONSTER OF GLAMIS
Legend has it that the Monster of Glamis was a deformed member of the Bowes-Lyon family, who was kept in a secret chamber in Glamis Castle. The “monster” was alleged to be Thomas Bowes-Lyon, the eldest child of the Queen Mother’s great great grandparents, who was born in 1821.
Official records suggest the child died in infancy but, over the years, rumours spread of his survival. According to the story, Thomas had an enormous chest with his head running straight into his body and had tiny arms and legs.
BLUE MEN OF MINCH
These mysterious sea creatures lived in the stretch of water between the Isle of Lewis and the mainland. They looked like humans but had blue skin and would swim alongside fishing boats, making their way through that stretch of water trying to lure sailors into the sea.
Legend had it they would also conjure up storms to wreck ships and that they lived in underwater caves, where they were ruled over by a chief. It was said fisherman could escape them if they were good at rhyming.
Although the idea of the village that only appears once every 100 years is now considered a Scottish myth, it actually has its roots in the mythical cursed German village of Germelshausen. It was this story that inspired composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe but, in 1947, a musical set in Germany was a no-no, so they relocated the musical in Scotland.
So the story of the Scots village where the passing of a century seems no longer than one night became part of our national folklore, with tourists still asking guides where they can find it.
Given how regularly the seas around Scotland used to claim the lives of fishermen, it’s no surprise people who lived on the coast had a fear of the water. And that’s why so many of Scotland‘s mythical creatures lived there, including the kelpie. Haunting lochs and rivers, they would appear to tired travellers as a lost pony with a wet mane.
If you climbed on to the creature, it would charge straight into the deepest part of the water, drowning you in the process.
LEGEND OF SAWNEY BEAN
Scotland’s most famous cannibal has become a mythical figure in folklore and arguments still rage about how much of the story is based on fact. The story goes that in the 16th century, Bean made his home in a Scottish coastal cave near Galloway, where he spawned a brood of more than 40 children and grandchildren.
Together, the clan would ambush, murder and eat people as they passed by, escaping capture for more than 20 years until they were eventually found and executed.
The Scottish version of mermaids were half-human, half-seal creatures who could take their seal skins on and off.
It’s believed they originated in Orkney but Ireland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland all have their own versions. They often featured in tales telling of how they would lose their skin and marry fishermen, bearing them children before finding their skin again and disappearing back into the sea.
Found among the ruined castles scattered across the Scottish borders, red caps were murderous goblin-like creatures who killed travellers straying into their path.
They would then dye their hats with their victim’s blood and they had to keep killing as, if the blood dried, they would die. Despite wearing spike-clad iron boots, the buck-toothed demons were said to be too fast to outrun and so the only way to escape one was to quote a passage from the Bible.
Described as a man covered with short brown hair but with a wolf’s head, the wulver is part of Shetland folklore. While other mythical werewolves were aggressive, the wulver stayed out of the way, spending its time fishing on a rock still known as The Wulver’s Stane.
The wulver would leave fish on the windowsills of poor families. It’s been 100 years since the last sighting.
THE word “banshee” comes from the Gaelic “bean shidh” which means “woman of peace”. While different cultures had their own versions, banshees were believed to be women found near streams, washing blood from the clothes of those about to die. In some tales they are described as having just one nostril, one long tooth, webbed feet and long hanging breasts. Some people believed banshees were the spirits of women who had died during child birth.