Scotland’s most captivating mythical creatures
You probably know the Loch Ness Monster, but have you ever heard of kelpies or wulvers?
The Scots are legendary storytellers (they even host a International Storytelling Festival), and their culture is rich in imaginary creatures – or, maybe, not-so-imaginary creatures… Here are some of my favorites.
No list of Scottish mythical creatures would be complete without mentioning National animal of Scotland – the infamous unicorn, which adorns the country’s royal coat of arms. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn represents both purity and power, innocence and dominance. The creature has been part of Scottish philosophy for centuries.
According to legend, the unicorn is fiercely independent, is the strongest of all wild animals, and can only be tamed by a virgin virgin. No wonder the independent Scots incorporated this creature into their national character!
No one knows how the unicorn myth began, but some have speculated that a rhino ancestor, now extinct Siberian unicorn, which lived alongside humans 35,000 years ago, could be the prototype. Others point to the “unicorn of the sea”, the narwhal.
But it was William I who introduced the unicorn to the Scottish royal coat of arms in the 13th century. Upon unification with England in 1603, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) replaced one of the unicorns on the crest with a lion, the national animal of England, to symbolize the junction of the two nations.
Pro tip: Unicorns are everywhere in Scotland! The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle, Craigmillar Castle, and St Giles Cathedral – all in Edinburgh – sports unicorns. But really, everywhere you go in Scotland, you can find a unicorn. Consider visiting the National unicorn day (celebrated on April 9) to get your unicorn patch.
The flip side of endearing unicorns is the terrifying kelpies, shape-changing horses that live in rivers and streams and lead unsuspecting victims to their deaths.
According to legend, a kelpie can appear as a tame horse to seduce a child or as a beautiful woman to trick a young man into touching his sticky skin. Once a victim is cornered and trapped, the kelpie drags them underwater to eat them. Or a kelpie could harness its magical powers to create a great flood to sweep its victim into its clutches.
The sound of a kelpie’s tail entering the water is said to sound like thunder. Be especially careful walking along rivers or streams just before a storm, when the haunting kelpie moans provide an ominous warning.
Although the origin of the kelpie myth is elusive, it lasted. Scottish poet Robert Burns commemorated the beasts in his 1785 poem Address in Deil (or “Devil”): “So the water kelp haunts the foord, / By your direction, / And the nocturnal travelers are drawn / To their destruction.”
Pro tip: Visit the the largest equine sculpture in the world – two magnificent heads of horses (kelpies!) In the Helix park of Falkirk. It is possible to take a guided tour of The Kelpies and even go inside the 98 foot statue.
3. Loch Ness Monster
the Loch Ness Monster may, in fact, be a kelpie. The first mention of the infamous marine dinosaur dates back to the sixth century, when Saint Columba, an Irish monk, learned that a “water beast” had dragged a man underwater, drowning him. Saint Columba enlisted one of his followers to swim across the river to lure Nessie ashore. But halfway through, the sea serpent attacked the man. According to onlookers, Saint Columba made the sign of the cross and shouted, “Go no further. Don’t touch the man. Come back immediately. The creature made a hasty retreat.
But the legend took off in the 1930s, sparked by a part-time reporter for the Inverness Courier who wrote about the possibility of a sea serpent in the waters of the lake. Three months later, a couple reported seeing a prehistoric dragon-like creature waddling along the road to the lake. After the Mail This story ran, more reports of sightings surfaced, and tourists flocked to the lake to be the first to take evidence of Nessie.
This evidence was provided by Hugh Gray in December 1933 – a photograph, which prompted the Scottish government to pass legislation to protect the Loch Ness Monster from damage. Thirty years later, the original negatives proved that the “monster” was an otter rolling on the surface.
Then came the definitive “surgeon’s photograph” published by the Daily mail in 1934 – which was, years later, determined to be a hoax concocted by a disgruntled employee of the newspaper.
In the decades that followed, research teams filmed, took sonar readings, and studied old photographs in search of the infamous Loch Ness Monster, usually finding evidence that was rather inconclusive to keep the mystery alive.
Pro tip: Modern Nessie hunters can search Loch Ness underwater or on the water Google Street View.
Wulvers are wolf-headed humans whose body is completely covered with hair. The ancient Celts believed that this was the stage of evolution between wolves and humans.
The stories of these benign creatures originated in the Shetland Islands, but have since spread across Scotland. They are solitary creatures that live in caves near the shore, survive on fish, and would leave fresh fish on the windowsills of poor families. They are also known to guide lost travelers to nearby villages.
the last reported sighting of a Wulver was in the early 1900s in a cave in the Shetlands. Modern folklorists theorize that the myth may have come from a local family living with a genetic condition called hypertrichosis – a condition in which hair grows all over the body.
Pro tip: It’s a long time to see these solitary and elusive creatures, but they are known to fish on rocks called wulver stanes (“Wolf Stones”) in the Shetland Islands.
Selkie fowk (“Seal People”) are seals that land, shed their skin and grow into remarkably beautiful human forms in order to attract lone fishermen’s wives or temperamental men in business. Then they slip into their sealskin and join their aquatic parents.
The myth may have come from furry explorers who wowed the locals. Children born with webbed fingers or scaly skin were considered the descendants of human-selkie bonds. Others have speculated that the selkies were reincarnations of people lost at sea or fallen angels trapped in sealskins.
In Tales of the Seal People: Scottish Folk Tales, Duncan Williamson suggests that the myth was born to pacify children whose parents were lost at sea: “They probably joined the seal people, became folk seal. And you will see them again.
Whatever the origins, many variations of the story persist – often with the sealskin of a selkie stolen by the human who fell in love, forcing the selkie into a human life. Usually, the selkie regains its skin and resumes its life at sea – and cannot return to land for seven years.
Pro tip: Since selkies only make themselves known to their future lovers, the best place to find them is at modern literature and films, such as The secret of Roan Inish, directed by John Sayles; John Gray’s The seventh stream; or Neil Jordan Undine.
6. Greyfriars Bobby
One of Edinburgh’s most endearing and enduring myths is that of Bobby, the lonely dog who watched over his master’s grave in Greyfriars Cemetery. But in 2011, a social historian from Cardiff University, Dr Jan Bondeson, covered the story. Bobby was not the beloved pet of policeman John Gray, who died of tuberculosis in 1858. According to Dr. Bondeson’s research, he was a stray well fed by the locals.
Examining old photos and paintings of “Bobby”, Bondeson discovered that the dog’s appearance had changed dramatically by 1867.
“The first Bobby was a pretty ugly dog, but in later paintings he looks exactly like the statue on the fountain,” Bondeson said. BBC News in 2011, referring to the bronze statue of a Skye terrier erected over a drinking fountain just outside the cemetery.
Apparently by the time the original wanderer died, “Bobby” had become such a lucrative tourist draw that locals adopted another dog – the more photogenic Skye Terrier – to keep the myth alive for another five years.
Cemetery curator James Brown would pass the sad story of the loyal dog to tourists – for a tip, of course – before directing them to lunch at a friend’s nearby restaurant. Edinburgh City Council meeting minutes revealed councilors were aware of the hoax!
Pro tip: To learn more about the different versions of Bobby’s Illustrative Story, take a tour with Paul (last name withheld), a former homeless man who now takes visitors – both in person and virtually – through Edinburgh. “It’s my job to seek out the truth behind the myths and legends,” wrote Paul, who was formed by the nonprofit organization. Invisible cities. “This is how I found out that the Greyfriars Bobby story had an alternate version.”
7. Haggis Birds
Most visitors to Scotland know this – or learn very quickly! – this haggis is a beloved national dish. It is a concoction of sausage-like mutton offal (chopped heart, liver and lungs) often served with neeps and tattoos (turnip puree and mashed potatoes).
But few visitors have prior knowledge of the equally beloved haggis bird, said to be the actual source of the traditional haggis. It is not really a bird, but rather a four-legged, rodent-like creature with a long, silky mane. If their left legs are shorter than their right, haggs and wild traders graze counterclockwise on the heather hills of Scotland. But if their right legs are shorter than their left, the “birds” graze the hills clockwise.
While spotting accounts of the elusive haggi wild birds have been passed down from generation to generation, the first written report of a haggi hunt was published in 1924 in the New York Tribune. The myth is so compelling that a 2003 study found that a third of American tourists in Scotland believe wild haggs exist, and 23% come to Scotland hoping to catch one.