Mythical Beasts of Scotland
the mythical beasts project
The mist rolls over the great pine laden landscape and from a cave up in the hills you hear it. Faint at first, becoming louder, what is it? A pained owl? The annual weasel rave? A red stag bellowing in pain as he struggles to complete his first CrossFit session of the new year? Or could it be the echoing sound of a long dead piper. Well, that isn't going to get old, is it? It's funny the real estate agent neglected to mention this.
Welcome to the ancient, brooding landscape of Scotland. Where Gaelic mixes with Norse belief to create mythology tailor-made for the environment. From the far north where Viking settlers brought the mound dwellers, to the far south where centuries of border disputes birthed fierce goblins and lamenting spirits, Scotland is indeed a diverse land of story.
Find out more about the making of the map in our blog.
the "washerwoman" a messenger from the other side and a portent of death, inhabiting streams and other bodies of water and washing the bloody clothes of the person about to die (it's probably you). There are many variations in appearance and myths about the Bean Nighe, in some, you may be granted wishes or gain knowledge, in some, she will paralyse you. A word to the wise here, sometimes to gain this desired knowledge you have to sneak up on her and put her pendulous breast that is hung over her shoulder into your mouth and claim to be her foster child. We needn't say that this is not only strange, but also lacks any form of enthusiastic consent and could well be viewed as assault. Don't go sneaking up on mythical beings and putting boobs in your mouth, not cool, take your fate with some dignity.
Beast of Barrisdale
One of the more unusual Loch beasts. Said to be similar to a donkey but with the mane and tail of a horse, a short snout with a large overbiting snout, 3 legs, and a set of wings for good measure. Its bellowing roar struck terror into the people around Loch Hourn (which translates handily to "Loch of Hell").
Beast of the charred forest
Born from a fire that burned for 7 years, villagers abandoned settlements when it was near, and for good reason, the powerful beast could breathe fire and would decimate woodlands and villages alike. It could only be killed by someone who saw it before it saw them. And as often in these tales it was a Saint, Saint Gilbert to be precise, who hid in a hole as it approached Dornoch and slew the beast with a single arrow.
If you are going to kill a snake make sure you bury the head far away from the body or they may reform and create a Beithir. A Beithir is described as being a very large and deadly serpent sharing some themes with a dragon but without the wings and fire. What it lacks in firepower it makes up for with venom, the Beithir is equipped with a long venomous sting, and if it gets you prepare for a good old-fashioned foot race to the nearest body of water. The good news is that if you win the water will cure you, the bad news is that if you lose, well I'm sure we can imagine. There is however another cure, you can drink water that has a snakehead in it. I would assume Beithir venom would be pretty potent stuff, so where you find a snake to decapitate and make a cocktail out of in time is anyone's guess, unless you just happen to carry one around at all times in case this very specific trauma was to happen to you. Not forgetting that mucking around with snakes heads is what started all this bother in the first place.
Some say demon cat, some the king of cats, some say a demon prince, some the Devil, either way, you slice it, you've got a big demonic black cat which you summoned through a horrendous ritual - And for better or worse you've gotten out of the house and created some memories. The ritual in question is "Taghairm nan caht" which amongst other components included....wait for it.... roasting live cats on a spit! The other components really do go out of the window at that bit, it has a tendency to slightly overshadow the rest. The basic idea was that after a while Big ears would appear, and to secure the release of the other cats would answer any question, mine personally would be "how do I get the horrible sound of burning cats out of my subconscious mind and forget this night ever happened?". You've certainly got to go take a good long look at yourself in a mirror and ask yourself some fundamental questions when you've summoned a jet black demon and you're the asshole in the situation.
Blue Men of the Minch
Are you ready for a rap battle? No? well probably best to give the Minch a swerve then. The blue men, sometimes viewed as storm kelpies (there is another kind of storm kelpie too, more akin to what you may view as a kelpie) will approach passing sailors and offer 2 lines of poetic verse (i believe cooler rap people would call this "spitting bars") then you best bring it and hit them with your sick flow or these mothers will drown y'all. I apologise now for this terrible rap reference.
Literally meaning "old man", not that scary so far, unless you count aging as a trigger for your existential woes. The name in Gaelic is made up of the word "bod" which means penis and the suffix "ach" creating the descriptive term "someone who has a penis". I don't like where this is going. Fortunately, that is the last we will hear about the Bodachs genitalia. He is a bogeyman who would enter a house through the chimney and prod and poke children (with his fingers! you awful disgusting people shock me) until they were reeling from nightmares. So he's basically a nightmare Santa with an unfortunate name. Do yourself a favour naughty child and throw some salt in the fire before bed to stop him from crossing the threshold.
From the Bogle, we get the terms "the mind boggles" "it boggles the mind". Bogles are very interesting, unlike many of the creatures that wish you harm, or the few that wish you well, the Bogle lives just to perplex mankind. We are unsure what technique the Bogle employs to perplex people and maybe it can vary from Bogle to Bogle, some preferring the elegant simplicity of a silly face and physical comedy, some employing the Socratic method, and the less subtle ones putting a bag over your head, throwing you in the back of a Fiat Cinquecento, driving you to the Cairngorms and leaving you on a mountain range with a teabag, a knife, a medium-sized squeaky rubber herring and a note wishing you all the best on your retirement. All pretty perplexing options.
The Bregdi just lives for cuddles, it enjoys nothing more than cuddling ships. Bless. Unfortunately, Bregdi either suffers from cute aggression, just plain old aggression, or misunderstands the whole situation as he pulls the ship down to show off his underwater abode. Fortunately, he can be deterred by the feel of cold steel (like most of us I imagine) or by pelting it with amber beads.
A shapeless demonic form of which you can only see the eyes and mouth, the Brollachan will change to the person or object it touches. Not the chattiest of fellows only knowing the 2 words "I" and "you", so if you meet a self-aware shovel you might be best off just getting on your way. The Brollachan is also known to possess people, they will be recognised by their dark complexion, glowing eyes, and displaying violent and erratic behaviour, not subtle at all. Unfortunately for the host, this won't go on too long as the Brollachan will have expended all your energies within a couple of days and leave you dead and seize a new host. The history can vary regarding the purpose of the creature, it could have been used to warn children not to venture too far, as a reason behind rabies or a warning about the potential dangers of a stranger.
The stories of the cailleach are so plentiful and varied, it would be hard to give a definitive answer about who or what she is. The consensus is she is a hag of divine power and ushers in winter, sometimes by washing her clothes and draping them pure white across the landscape in the form of snow. There are many creation myths tied to the Cailleach as well as places named after her both in Scotland and Ireland.
The Ceasg is a beautiful mermaid with the tail of a young salmon, they will grant 3 wishes to anyone who captures them. Marriages have been known to exist between humans and the Ceasg, even resulting in offspring, the mechanics of which don't bear thinking about. Obvious joke aside, we assume that like traditional mermaid motifs they had some kind of cap they could remove to become human on land. These offspring were said to have protection at sea and were guided to the best fishing spots. Nepotism.
There are regional variations on this creature that are featured in Scottish, Irish, and Manx folklore in various ways. A hairy cave-dwelling chap, accounts differ on how nice they were.
The fairy dog. Well, that sounds lovely. Well sometimes yes and others no. The cù sìth was often a portent of death and if you heard it bark you best reach safety before you heard its 3rd bark or be overcome by panic and fear to the point of death, literally scared to death. One of our favorite tales is of Callum and his beloved dog, it is called "Gift of the fairy hound" and is a beautiful story. We won't get into it here as it would be too long, but try and dig it up, the feels are real. If we ever visit myths individually this would be a story we would like to work with.
The Dundee Dragon
kill one of my daughters, shame on you, kill nine of my daughters, well I guess I best go see what all this bother is then. Just outside of Dundee a farmer sent one of his daughters to fetch water from the well, when she didn't return he sent another, then another and so. It wasn't until he had gotten through his 9 daughters that he thought to go see what was happening. So we can assume 2 things here that are at odds with each other, that is A- this farmer must be a virile chap, and B-despite said virility and occupation he could be a bit of a lazy sod. When he finally mustered the effort to go see what had happened to his 9 missing daughters, he was greeted by the grizzly sight of them all munched up by a dragon. In an unusual twist in dragon mythology, no saint was needed for the slaying, instead, the dragon was defeated in good old-fashioned local mob justice, pitchforks, and everything. Classic.
Making all other water horses look like a right-flipping bunch of flower-loving hippy softies, we have the Each Uisge. Shapeshifting between a handsome man, a horse, and a large bird, if you mount it in horse mode for the love that all is holy do not let it see water. You will become glued to the horse and it will take you to the deepest part of the loch to drown you, and just to make sure you are dead, and not at all overkill, it will rip you into so many pieces all that remains is a liver bobbing on the surface. Super dead.
The Great Hand
In the tunnels below Edinburgh's royal mile, something lurks. What it is, we can't say, all people have seen is its giant grizzled, taloned hand and anyone who has seen any more of it hasn't survived to say anything further. Right on cue (as in many tales of Scotland) enter stage left a foolhardy piper and his dog. Who then proceeds to say the same thing they all do "I'll walk in playing my pipes to verify where I am", it is the Scottish equivalent of saying "I'll be right back" in a 90s teen slasher movie. The obvious happens and the music stops and the dog runs out terrified and hairless, like in every phantom piper story ever. So many dead pipers and hairless shaking dogs we're surprised there isn't a national breed of dogs at Crufts called" the Scottish vibrating hairless". The tunnel was sealed up. Fair play.
Grin Iron Wife
Still spotted to this day this sea witch in very clichéd fashion likes to kill children. She will wait for them to venture deep enough into the water to strike. In rather un-clichéd fashion she carries a glowing herring as a torch.
A benevolent brownie-type creature with long flowing hair. The Gruagach would help look after dairy cattle in exchange for a share of the produce. Generally a helpful creature and seen as beneficial, but you better not use foul language around them or they will whip you with a rod. They are also quite prone to a "joke" their favorite being letting the cattle out of the pen in the middle of the night to wake the farmer. Anyone who has had children will tell you how totally uncool this is. I'm sure the farmer felt the rod for the language used when woken up.
Jenny with the Airn Teeth
Featuring in a 19th-century poem by Alexander Anderson, Jenny was a bogeyman that would bite children in their sides with her iron teeth, it's a great poem and Jenny is an interesting bogeyman (or bogeyperson?). What makes the story interesting is how long her myth has lasted. In 1954 in Glasgow hysteria broke out ad hysteria spread amongst the children about the "Gorbals Vampire" a 7-foot vampire with iron teeth (we've heard that somewhere before) roaming the Southern Necropolis cemetery. The children banded together and over 3 nights hunted the monster with stakes, knives, and dogs, it made global news, and the backdrop of fog as well as smoke and fire from the neighbouring steelworks must have made for a charged and spooky atmosphere. Apparently, this isn't the only story of Glasgow children mobbing up and trying to hunt down a beast, it seems to happen with alarming frequency. Glasgow -Hard. As.Nails.
An icon in Scotland and one of its most loved mythical creatures. Nearly any loch will have a Kelpie story associated with it, they are a familiar motif across the northern world warning children of the dangers of water. Apparently "be careful or you might drown" isn't enough, the drowning would need to be instigated by some kind of aquatic equine creature for it to be an effective warning. Contrary to the modern sparkly, charming things a princess would ride, they are prone to eating and disemboweling people, as well as the regular drownings they can also shapeshift into a human form for extra trickery.
A noxious rodent of Highland folklore, inhabiting waterways and so potent it could kill cattle from over 100 feet away.
The Linton Worm
Not a fussy eater. Happy to eat people, cattle, crops, and generally anything it could fit in its mouth. It seemed impervious to the weapons used to attack it. Cue a reckless man seeking glory by the name of De Somerville. He noticed it would consume anything in its path, and if an object was too large it would stay motionless with its mouth wide open. Handy. De Somerville had a spear crafted with a wheel at the front and tipped it with a lump of burning peat coated in tar and brimstone. Wondering if he could eat it, the dumb worm did what the dumb worm does and sat there motionless, mouth open. The worm obviously died as do most things that have had a flaming lance driven down their gullet from horseback.
"Past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks. On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat with a red right hand" A bit of Nick Cave for you there, which I'm sure fans of either music in general, or the hit show Peaky Blinders will be well aware. And it is in fact impossible to research Ly Erg without having this song in your head....constantly. He does indeed have a "red right hand" though not the black coat, well maybe. Described in various traditional military attire he will challenge you to a fight, obviously don't, just don't do it, why would you just fight some random person? Especially one with the blood of previous challengers dripping from his hand. Come on we're supposed to be civilised grown-ups are we not? Anyway, you went and did it, you had a dust-up with Ly Erg, well good news Mr violence, win or lose you will die within the fortnight anyway. Well done you. "You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan designed and directed by his red right hand". Nick Cave warned ya.
Malevolent Shetland Fish monster with a crest of flame and eyes all over its body. It likes to sing whilst ships sink in storms, I'm not sure if this is done to mock the dying or if he's just letting them go down all classy like at the end of Titanic. Either way an odd move on the part of Marool.
Do we have to say anything? Probably the biggest name in cryptozoology, the mighty Nessie, an inhabitant of Loch Ness and international poster child for monsters everywhere. You work it Nessie.
Like many of the other water horses - Its.Gonna.DrownYou. You know it's gonna drown you right? This one has a trick up its sleeve though, it has learned to bait a trap! A noggle will approach the waterwheel of a mill and grab the mechanism in its teeth, stopping the wheel, luring the owner outside. Clever girl. Now the mill owner not being an absolute plonker wouldn't just mount a strange horse, would he? oh, he is? And what's it doing now? oh, it's running into the sea....Quelle.Surprise. And as if to say "ta-da!" the Noggle vanishes in a puff of blue smoke and flame.
Right boys and girls. It's nightmare time. The Nuckelavee is an Orcadian demon, though a water-based creature no one knows what form it takes in the sea, or if they do they are not around to tell us. On land, this horror is described as a flayed rider who is fused at the waist to his horse, though it is viewed as a singular entity. The horse has a huge burning red eye in the centre of its head, a huge gaping whale-like mouth that exudes toxic vapor, the rider has a giant (up to 3 foot) wobbling head that rocks back and forth, black blood pumps through its veins, it has fin-like appendages on its legs and the rider's arms can reach to the floor from atop its steed. Creepy enough? Yeah, I thought so, full-on nightmare fuel. The Nuckelavee is known to bring pestilence, crop failure, and drought. It is no surprise Orcadians felt the need to say a prayer just at the mention of its name. The horror, the horror.
Bagpipes are synonymous with Scotland, as are tales of brave/reckless pipers, and when they hear of a monster-ridden cave feel the unexplainable need to go in playing. I believe so people could hear if they made it through or when/if it stopped - basically functioning as an archaic and very Scottish version of sonar. Surely by the merit of you being there, you know that at some point the music will stop right? probably at the point that you are getting munched by a beasty. For some reason, these pipers always felt the need to bring their poor dogs along, who would inevitably run out of the cave terrified and hairless after the music stopped. These pipers are then said to haunt these locations and sometimes you can hear the pipes playing. So eternal bagpipes....... it's hard to have sympathy.
The much-loved Selkie is a benevolent creature featured in many northern mythologies. Meaning "seal folk" they can strip their seal coat off and walk on land as people. They are often found in relationships with people, who tend to get a bit possessive and hide their sealskin, preventing them from returning to the sea. Ultimately the pull back to the sea is too great and if they find where Mr insecure and possessive has stashed their skin they are pulled almost uncontrollably back. It is said that whilst they are on land they are perfect wives and mothers. most reports of people said to have married a Selkie say it is the happiest times of their life and they have never felt as loved since. Less common are the tales of Selkie men, who are extremely handsome, have seductive powers, and are drawn to dis-satisfied women. If you like Selkie mythology we highly recommend "Song of the sea" by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, and generally anything else they ever make. Their work is so important and beautiful.
Some stories claim the Shellycoat is a mere prankster, who would pretend to drown and laugh at you when you turned up to help. There are however more tales of the shellycoat being an enormous powerful dark creature that delighted in torment and brutality. One tale tells of a wager between men that one of them dare not venture down to Shellycoat Stane and repeat the famous rhyme "Shelly-coat! Shelly-coat! gang awa' hame, I cry na' yer mercy, I fear na' yer name." They set out eventually 2 of the men turned back, but one bolstered by wine carried on. When the other 2 found him in the morning he had 2 broken legs, severely bruised ribs, and was barely coherent. The shellycoat had taken him to the highest point in the landscape and thrown him from it laughing, and for good measure repeated the process 7 times, even after the man lost consciousness. So yeah I guess the Shellycoat could be considered a prankster it just depends on how dark your humor is.
Nope, nothing to do with Star Wars. Sith is the Scottish word for fairy it is pronounced "shee" like the Irish Sidhe. And are certainly not the twee Tinkerbells or chocolate box illustrations of tiny people with wings. The Sith are powerful folk who can cross in and out of our world and must be kept onside. Even witches would pour libations for the Sith, landscapes have developed or rather not been developed due to a fairy fort being present. The stories of fairies are endless, they come in many forms and have very different intents. When asked how you would spot one many who have had encounters will reply "you couldn't, they look just like me or you. I couldn't tell you if the man next to me was one". Eek.
A gigantic sea-dwelling beast with an endless appetite created by malevolent spirits. The Stoor worm was capable of eating entire ships and would use its prehensile forked tongue to drag villages and hillsides into the sea, with a breath so foul it could destroy crops and cattle. It was killed when the hero Assipattle sails a boat straight down its gullet and sticks a lump of burning peat to its liver, then nonchalantly sails back out. As the beast dies its teeth become the Orkneys, Shetland, and Faroe islands, its tongue creates the Baltic Sea and its curled dead body becomes Iceland. There are obvious parallels here to Jörmungandr, especially considering the Orkneys were once inhabited by Vikings, it makes sense they would bring their style of creation stories to Scotland.
Hill-dwelling people are similar to humans but smaller and uglier, which isn't a kind thing to say. Small, yes fine, we can objectively say something is smaller, but come on, beauty is subjective, to his trow mum, he is the most handsome trow on the planet, and she said you're no oil painting either. Trows are partial to a bit of fiddle music, general chaos, and mischief, harassing giants, spells, curses, and the occasional kidnapping. They may sound cheeky little chaps, but they were greatly feared, wherever their mischief went calamity followed.
Wilkie is a mound dweller based in Westray. Mound dwellers were often given a boon from the land, usually in the form of milk, which was offered daily. People feared that if he wasn't given his offering goods would disappear, livestock would become ill, and possibly you may also be haunted by the mound dweller.
In Scotland, it is also referred to as a Spunkie (don't you snigger now). Some are said to be spirits sent to lead you to your doom or omens of death. There are many different accounts of wisps across the world with as many different beliefs and names attached to them.
We hope you have enjoyed our journey through Scotlands Myths and legends. There are so many more wonderful stories to discover, however, we unfortunately only have a finite space on the page. If you wish to read more about Scotland's myths you will be spoiled for choice, it is a deep vein and there are numerous books on the subject.
"Mythical Beasts of Scotland" is available in our store.
All the best
Neil and Charley