Scottish Myths and Legends

St Mungo

Background

Scotland has a rich Celtic History going back over 2,000 years, at a time when superstition was rife and where unusual events were "explained" by stories and inventions which were then passed on by word of mouth. It is therefore not surprising that Scotland has an extensive heritage of myths and legends.

There is an introduction to Celtic Mythology and Celtic Folklore.

Finally, the Encyclopaedia of the Celts contains quotations from many of the historic and legendary events and people.

Spirits and Goblins
Encyclopedia Mythica is a huge Web site covering many of the myths and legends around the world. With a bit of digging, the specifically Scottish elements within the Folklore section can be uncovered :

Saints Preserve Us!
Legend tells us that a Scottish queen was given a ring by her husband. But she gave it to a handsome soldier and the king found out. He came across the soldier asleep by a river bank, took the ring, threw it in the water and challenged his wife to produce the ring. St Mungo, who was to become the patron saint of Glasgow, miraculously returned the ring by catching the right salmon and finding it in its stomach. The arms of the City of Glasgow now include a salmon with a ring in its mouth (see graphic at the top of the page!).

Foretelling the Future
There is a long tradition of claims to be able to foretell the future and having the ability to have Second Sight. The most famous of these, was Coinneach Odhar, better known as the Brahan Seer, some of whose visions for the future are said to have come to pass. He foretold the site of the Battle of Culloden, the construction of the Caledonian Canal and the doom of the Mackenzies of Seaforth while the "black rain" on Aberdeen is said by some to be the coming of the oil industry. But his fame rests on a best-selling book by Alexander Mackenzie published in 1877 and there is little historical evidence for the seer or his prophecies!

Thomas of Ercildoune lived in the Scottish Borders 700 years ago. He lived near the Eildon Hills - where Michael Scot the Wizard instructed three imps to split the single hill into three (it is actually one hill with three peaks). Thomas is supposed to have met the Fairy Queen in the Eildon Hills and she made him to go to Fairyland for three years. On his return he had the gift of poetry and prophecy and usually made his prophecies in rhymes, similar to the more well known Nostradamus. He thus became more popularly known as Thomas the Rhymer. He is credited with predicting the Union of the Crowns which came to pass in 1603. One of his rhymes was "Tide, tide, whate'er betide, There'll aye be Haigs at Bemersyde". The Haigs did indeed last at Bemersyde in the Borders for many centuries but the line died out in the 19th Century. It looked as though the prophecy had failed - until a grateful nation bought Bemersyde for the World War I leader, Earl Haig - a distant relation.

Castles with Ghosts
Buildings with long histories tend to collect legends and stories like the moss on their stonework. There have usually been some dire deeds carried out within their walls which give rise to tales of ghosts and tortured spirits still, occasionally, to be seen walking (or floating) around. Scottish castles are no exception. Haunted Castles of Scotland provides an comprehensive selection but here are a few for starters:

Mythical Objects
Many objects, other than castles, have accumulated their share of myths and legends. Some like the Grave Slabs and Pictish Stones and Stone Circles and Cairns have been around for a long time - well over 2,000 years. In particular, Megalithic Mysteries - Stones of Scotland is an excellent collection of photographs of standing stones and megalithic remains, emphasising the mystical aspects of these reminders of the ancient inhabitants of Scotland.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan associated with Clan MacLeod is said to be a scrap of cloth torn from the dress of a fairy who had married a chieftain of the MacLeods but had to leave mortal life after twenty years of marriage. Also at Dunvegan Castle is "Rory Mor's Horn" from which a new chief must drink a bottle and a half of claret in one go! According to the guide book for the castle, the present chief achieved this - in under two minutes!

Legend has it that the Stone of Destiny, or Stone of Scone, was used by Jacob in in Israel and was brought to Scotland via Ireland. It was used by the kings of Dalriada at their coronations and was taken to Scone around 840AD. King Edward I removed it to London in 1296 and it was placed under the throne in Westminster Abbey. It was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.

The "Curse of Scotland" is the name given to a playing card, the nine of diamonds. The Duke of Cumberland is said to have scribbled the order to give "no quarter" on such a card before the Battle of Culloden. Others say that the derivation is from the coat of arms of John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair who signed the order for the Glencoe Massacre.

And finally, no overview of Scotland's myths and legends would be complete without the Legend of Nessie! As mentioned earlier, he/she/it was first spotted by St Columba in 565AD but most of the sightings have been in the last 100 years. Perhaps this is due to the greater number of people looking out for the monster or perhaps it is due to the growth in the Scottish tourist industry? But Nessie is now so up to date that she now has her own Internet Diary!




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