Category Archives: Scottish folklore

Monster-hunting Holidays!

Scotland is a land of legends, from kelpies (water-horses) to faeries and giants to selkies (seal-folk); there are no shortage of stories about supernatural creatures which thrived in the wild and untamed Scottish landscape in times gone by. Possibly the most famous of all these beings is Nessitera rhombopteryx who some believe still resides in the one of Scotland’s largest, deepest, fresh water lochs, right in the heart of the Highlands.

Famous? Then why haven’t you heard about this legendary entity?

Ah, but you have, possibly by one of her other, more common, names. For the creature of which I speak is the notorious Loch Ness Monster, more affectionately referred to as Nessie!
The first recorded sighting of a monster living in the area of Loch Ness was over 15 hundred years ago, when Irish monk St Columba was visiting the Pictish shores. After having sent one of his followers into the water to attract the ‘water beast’ he demonstrated the power of his God by commanding the creature to break off his attack and caused it to flee in terror!

The first ever picture of the Loch Ness Monster?Fast forwarding to the beginning of the 20th century, further interest was sparked when George Spicer and his wife saw what they described as ‘a most extraordinary animal’ cross the road in front of their car and disappear into the Loch. The sighting lead to numerous ‘hunting’ parties visiting the loch over the following few years determined to catch the monster ‘dead or alive’. It was at this time that the well known ‘Surgeons photograph’ was taken, which has now been exposed as a hoax. However in 1938 a South African tourist called G. E. Taylor made a 3 minute recording on 16mm colour film of the elusive creature, and although only a single frame was ever made publicly available, experts have said that it is ‘positive evidence’ of Nessie’s existence.

In 1943 the monster was seen again by C. B. Farrel of the Royal Observer Corps as he carried out his duties on the Loch. He described a finned creature with large eyes and a neck that protruded 4-5 feet out of the waters. 11 years later, the crew of a fishing boat called the Rival III reported sonar readings of a large object at a depth of 480 feet keeping pace with them for approximately half a mile as they sailed across the loch.

What lies beneath the tranquil waters of Loch Ness? (photo courtesy of conner395)In 1960 the monster was again caught on film by Tim Dinsdale, which, when digitally enhanced in 1993, showed a creature with rear flippers and a plesiosaur-like body (plesiosaurs were carnivorous aquatic reptiles which lived at the end of the Triassic Period). Sceptics have said that due to the poor quality of the film, these features could have been created by tricks of the light as it reflected on the water, but no one really knows.

Just 4 years ago the monster appeared on film again, when Gordon Holmes videoed a jet black ‘thing’, about 45 feet long, moving quickly through the loch waters, but because the footage did not include anything which could be used as a scale comparison, once again it can not be classed as definitive proof.

A visit to the Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre in Drumnadrochit ensures you a sighting of the beast! (photo courtesy of n.hewson)So, the legend remains just that!  There is no undisputed verification of the existence of a monster living in the waters of Loch Ness, but then again, there is no sure proof that there is not! Perhaps, sometime soon, someone will get the evidence that Nessie isn’t just a myth or tale, but rather another example of how the unique, unspoilt landscape of Scotland supports species that have been long extinct elsewhere.

If you fancy taking on the challenge and take part in a bit of Nessie spotting then Unique Cottages has a selection of cottages close to Loch Ness, including two where you can actually see a great length of the loch from the window!

See cottages near Loch Ness >

Danger Valley

The fact that grew up in “the most dangerous valley in Scotland” was brought to my attention this week!  Why was I not aware of this before now you may ask?  And how did I survive?

It seems that the key to my continued existence, and my obliviousness to my home’s worrying reputation, is simply the century in which I was born.  Had I entered the world 450 years earlier things could have been very different, and the location where I was given life would most likely been responsible for my early demise!

Brutality, violence and conflict were the way of life in the Liddesdale valley throughout the middle ages, and it was this ferocious culture that earned the stretch of land its forbidding reputation.  The land through which the Liddel waters flow straddles the England-Scotland border, making it the front line for battles between the two opposing countries long before the concept of a ‘united kingdom’ was ever suggested.  However, it was not just warring between nations that bloodied the ground.  Neighbouring clans would raid each other’s land to steal livestock (and even women) from their fellow countrymen.

If you wander through this beautiful valley now it is so peaceful and unspoilt it can be difficult to believe that it has been witness to such treachery and betrayal, although there are a few ancient buildings and stone built memorials dotted around the landscape that remind you of times long past.  Hermitage Castle, which sits about 6 miles from the village of Newcastleton, is one such relic.

Sinister, stark, and somehow almost threatening, it stands ominously amongst the hills.  Unlike many historic attractions, it is a building that I think is best to visit on a day when the sky is dark and the air is cool, making sure you get a real appreciation of just how menacing and intimidating this castle can feel!  Complimenting the building’s haunting ambience is the tale of ‘Bad Lord Soulis’ who apparently lived in the castle and was eventually wrapped in lead and boiled to death by the Liddesdale clans – and if you believe the story it was one of the more justifiable murders they committed!

I have to admit that I am rather glad I was not quite so aware of the valley’s terrifying history when, in my youth, I had a very overactive imagination.  But I’m glad that I watched the first programme in the BBC series ‘Scotland Clans’ (which was shown on BBC Scotland this Wednesday) from which I gained this increased knowledge about the significant blood-shed which once took place so close to my childhood home.

Those who missed it (or are out with the catchment area for BBC Scotland) can catch it on BBC iplayer until Wednesday 16th February.   If it inspires you to explore the area for yourself and indulge in the rich history and traditions of the Border country, my personal recommendation for a place to stay is Braehead Cottage, just 11 miles from Hermitage Castle itself.

My ‘seal’ of approval…

The news at the beginning of this week reporting the introduction of new laws to protect Scottish seals brought to mind an old Scottish legend told me as a child by my dear old, if not a little superstitious, grandmother.

The story went like this:

A seal hunter is woken one night by a stranger who states that his master requests the presence of the seal hunter and asks the hunter to go with him to his master’s abode. The seal hunter agrees and is taken, on the back a large black horse, many miles through the Scottish countryside to the edge of a cliff. On arrival at the cliff’s edge the seal hunter questions his escort as to where his master’s home is, at which point the stranger grabs the hunter and they both plummet downwards into the sea. The hunter wakes in a beautiful underwater kingdom, surrounded by the same animals that he has dedicated his life to killing and is approached by a large boar seal.

The boar seal leads him through the kingdom to a room where another seal lies dying with a huge knife wound to its belly. It turns out that this injured seal is the father of the large boar seal who invited the hunter to his realm, and the hunter recalls how earlier in the day, while hunting, he had stabbed a seal but not having killed it, only wounded it, the seal had managed to swim away with his knife blade still buried within it.

The hunter is told by the boar seal that he, as the one who inflicted the wound, is the only one who can save his father and requests that the hunter does so. The hunter removes the knife blade and magically the wound heals. The boar then tells the hunter that they will allow him to leave the underwater kingdom and return home only if he promises to surrender his job and vow never to harm a seal again. The hunter, feeling rather overwhelmed and more than a little homesick, agrees – worrying all the way home (on the back of that black horse again) how he will make ends meet now he cannot do what he has always done to make a living for himself. But when he returns home, before the stranger bids him farewell, he is handed a purse full of gold coins, enough to ensure that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life.

I’m sure the moral to this story is meant to be something along the lines of – if you do the right thing, and don’t harm others, you will be richly rewarded, but as a child the message I took from it was don’t hurt a seal or you might end up being taken to the bottom of the sea!

It would seem that seals now have more than just bedtime stories to discourage people from killing or harming them without good reason, as the new law makes it an offence to kill or injure a seal except under licence, with a potential penalty of a hefty fine or even 6 months in prison. Although seals can and do cause problems for the fishing industry, they are long standing residents of our seas and shores and I personally believe that more regulation of the way in which they are culled has to be a good thing – so the new law gets my seal of approval (excuse the pun, I couldn’t help myself!)

Seals in the Sound of Jura

Fortunately it still remains legal to shoot seals as much as your heart desires – as long as it’s with a camera! So, for those who fancy spending some time admiring these intriguing animals below is a list of my favourite places to spot them around Scotland:

The Moray Firth Coastline

The shores of Loch Linnhe

The Orkney Islands

The Sound of Jura

The shoreline at Fast Castle, near Coldingham

Fast Castle Seals

And just a wee bit of advice -please remember that even the cutest of seals with the biggest, most appealing eyes are still wild animals and if you do get too close and make them feel threatened they may bite in defence. Keeping a safe distance ensures seal watching is an enjoyable experience for both you and the seal!

Rowan trees according to the locals

The rain from last night and most of today has thankfully filled up our water tank. No more trips to the burn with the watering-can for us now. A little wander around the garden when the sun came out, because it does look so much more appealing after a bout of showers, lead to this find.

The shape of the leaves leads us to the conclusion that it is a rowan tree which we think is a good omen after our neighbour once dissuaded us about a fallen rowan tree which we had had our eyes on for the wood burner, saying that to burn it would bring us bad luck. It wasn’t until a year later that the importance of the rowan tree would crop up again. This time, we heard about a wedding ceremony taking place underneath a particular rowan tree that had grown on top of an oak, an epiphyte or ‘flying rowan’, that is especially potent in warding off evil spirits, that we started thinking about the relevance of the tree to Scottish mythology.

They are everywhere up here although it isn’t until the Autumn when their bright red berries appear, that you start to notice just how many. If you spot one in a graveyard, its presence is probably not a coincidence as they are planted by loved ones of the deceased to prevent any hauntings.

Rowan is still used in the craft of stick-making, that is still taught at our local village hall, even if the mythical properties behind its use in the past by druids might not always be known. We’ve yet to see our local farmer put a sprig of rowan above his barn door to protect his cattle from harm although we might suggest it only if we see him down the pub and have had a few drinks first.

If you’re in the Loch Lomond area and fancy a walk then you might be interested in this.

That flying rowan we were talking about

The rain from last night and most of today has thankfully filled up our water tank. No more trips to the burn with the watering-can for us now. A little wander around the garden when the sun came out, because it does look so much more appealing after a bout of showers, lead to this find.

The shape of the leaves leads us to the conclusion that it is a rowan tree which we think is a good omen after our neighbour once dissuaded us about a fallen rowan tree which we had had our eyes on for the wood burner, saying that to burn it would bring us bad luck. It wasn’t until a year later that the importance of the rowan tree would crop up again. This time, we heard about a wedding ceremony taking place underneath a particular rowan tree that had grown on top of an oak, an epiphyte or ‘flying rowan’, that is especially potent in warding off evil spirits, that we started thinking about the relevance of the tree to Scottish mythology.

They are everywhere up here although it isn’t until the Autumn when their bright red berries appear, that you start to notice just how many. If you spot one in a graveyard, its presence is probably not a coincidence as they are planted by loved ones of the deceased to prevent any hauntings.

Rowan is still used in the craft of stick-making, that is still taught at our local village hall, even if the mythical properties behind its use in the past by druids might not always be known. We’ve yet to see our local farmer put a sprig of rowan above his barn door to protect his cattle from harm although we might suggest it only if we see him down the pub and have had a few drinks first.

If you’re in the Loch Lomond area and fancy a walk then you might be interested in this.