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Folkore of Scotland’s Wildlife: Behind the ‘Big 5’

Posted on Apr 14, 2014 by Myles Farnbank

2013 was the Year of Natural Scotland and involved a campaign from Visit Scotland to get everyone talking about Scotland’s iconic wildlife and decide our own ‘Big 5’ animals. Director of Training at Wilderness Scotland, Myles Farnbank shares some of the history and folklore behind these wonderful creatures that has been built up in Scotland through the ages.

‘The Tufted Acrobat’ aka the Red Squirrel

A red squirrel in a Scots pine probably epitomizes ‘wild Scotland’ as well as that of any other creature. They have not always been as popular as they are today and were almost lost in the 18th & 19th centuries. They were seen as vermin and bounties were paid for their tails. 4727 were killed in 1903 by the Ross-shire Squirrel Club! Some keepers believed that if they cut off their tails and let them go again, they would grow another and then they might be paid again.

‘The Roaring Monarch’ aka the Red Deer

Folkore of Scotland’s Wildlife: Behind the ‘Big 5’

Landseer’s famous painting, Monarch of the Glen is another of ‘wild Scotland’s’ enduring images. In mythology the stag is a symbol of male virility. A hind’s head is one of the commonest images on Pictish carved stones. Deer were thought to feed on snakes in the summer so people refrained from eating the meat for fear it might be poisonous. A piece of deer hoof set into a ring was once worn as a cure for epilepsy.

‘The Curious Seadog’ aka the Harbour Seal

Folkore of Scotland’s Wildlife: Behind the ‘Big 5’

The Harbour or Common seal is not actually that common. There is a widespread tradition that the drowned change into seals. In the Hebrides they are fallen angels and in Shetland mermaids or mermen, who have the power to shed their skins. If the ‘selkies’ skins are seized they are obliged to remain in human form. If a seal is shot, its blood staining the sea is said to cause a great storm to arise.

‘The Whiskered Diver’ aka the Otter

Folkore of Scotland’s Wildlife: Behind the ‘Big 5’

The otter is one of our oldest inhabitants, with its remains having been found in Pliocene deposits. In the past it was hunted for its fur and in 1424 custom duty of a halfpenny was paid for each skin. The following poem by Kenneth Steven from his poetry collection Island 2009, captures the otters character beautifully.

The Small Giant

The otter is ninety percent water
Ten percent God.
This is a mastery
We have not fathomed in a million years.
I saw one once, off the teeth of western Scotland,
Playing games with the Atlantic –
Three feet of gymnastics
Taking on an ocean.

‘The High Flyer’ aka the Golden Eagle

Folkore of Scotland’s Wildlife: Behind the ‘Big 5’

Many would argue that the Golden Eagle is the symbol of Scotland. It is said to be able to look into the sun without being blinded. In old age it would fly sunwards until its feathers caught fire and then it plunged into the ocean magically restoring its youth. There are stories of babies being carried off by Golden eagles in Skye and Shetland, where they were placated with offerings of food on Quarter days. There was also a Hogmanay curse wishing eagles and other raptors on households, which failed to give the guisers a good welcome.

For more info on Scotland’s ‘Big 5’ go to

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