The gnawing of waves on stony shore. The gloom of inexplicable and unknowable depths. The drag of currents and shifting silt. Brush of weeds or worse unseen. Promised potential and abundance beyond the waves, but true terror can sweep in at a moment’s notice on ever-changing tides. While seas, lochs, rivers and streams can be quite beautiful they’re also places of mystery and danger going back millennia.
It’s little wonder that so many of Scotland’s stories surround the water and terrors in the deep.
As a means to warn off children from dangerous spots so that they didn’t need constant minding by busy parents, they’re useful tools. More crucially stories are an attempt to explain the world around ancient peoples, and thus make it a touch less intimidating. Stories as much define people as are defined by the people who tell them. They teach us how the people of the past viewed the world around them, while also teaching valuable lessons we can still apply to this very day.
We’ve collected a few of our favourite Scots tales about water spirits and boggles. We can make no claims if Scotland’s waterways are still inhabited by these interesting characters, though we can certainly say that folks have been talking about them for centuries. Though Nessie indeed does qualify, we won’t feature her in this list. Instead we’ll focus on other tales surrounding Scottish water mythology which are a little less well known but far more interesting for wary travellers. You can read about Loch Ness’s most famous resident here.
“Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed,
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.”
Seals have a beautiful innocence to them. On the shore, they’re adrift and out of their element, but seen in the water they glide and dance through the depths. They seem even more at ease in the water than we are on land, effortlessly fishing and inquisitively approaching boats to investigate. Perhaps this is where the tales of selkies come from: an analogy for being out of our depths and wistfully wishing for the waves.
Selkies are said to be part human and part seal, taking the form of the seal for safety in the depths before shedding their skin to walk on two legs on land. Selkies feature in Scottish and Irish folk tales, particularly on the islands and coastal regions. It’s easy to imagine that a deep connection and yearning for the sea makes such stories take root deeper in the minds which dream here.
Learn more about the selkies and Irish mythology here.
The typical telling of the story features a fisherman, for they’re simultaneously lucky and unlucky in all folktales it seems. He comes across a beautiful lady bathing upon the rocks. Despite being nude she has a handsome sealskin coat close by, or perhaps it was a tail for such stories are often unreliable. Regardless, the magical skin disappears into a hiding place the man has prepared. The fisherman, who always has been seeking a wife, then typically proclaims that he’s fallen in love at first sight. Without her skin she cannot transform back into seal form, and so has no choice but to return his love and marry him.
Alas, the tale always ends in disaster. Though they build a life together and have children, the selkie is forever called to the ocean she loves. She sings mournful songs for her family out beyond the waves, forever calling to her to come back and join them. Before long the sea spirit will spend many a glum evening gazing out across the water. As time progresses the call only gets worse and worse, causing her to seek her lost seal coat. Eventually, after much searching, she uncovers the hiding place of her seal tail.
This is where the stories start to split a little. In some instances the selkie simply flees back to the ocean much to the fisherman’s dismay, leaving behind any children she bore for her one true love of the sea. In other more tragic tales, she takes her children with her into the deep. Turning them into stones, drowning them, or spiriting them away to sing songs beneath the waves. All while the fisherman watches mournfully from the shore.
Regardless this is no happy ever after and, no matter how pretty the girl with the seal tail may be, you’d best beware unrequited love from beyond the sea.
An interesting deviation from the classic selkie formula is the Fin-Folk of Orkney and Shetland. They lure targets close with handsome guises and pretty songs like sirens in Greek tales. Then, when the moment is perfect, turn the tables on foolish youths who are not wary by the waves. Spirited away to their new home of Hildaland these captives suffer as much put upon spouses for cruel Fin-Folk. This may be a carryover from the days of Viking raiders coming from across the ocean for plunder and captives. Alternatively, the folk of Hildaland are of a darker sort whom we best beware if ever we’re on the beach at dusk.
Often as we cycle or walk the Outer Hebrides on our trips we look out over a stormy sea. It’s easy to get caught imagining what horrors must lurk beneath the swell.
Crashing waves and fraught souls mark the crossing between the Scottish mainland and the Outer Hebrides known as The Minch. With some of the most powerful currents around the UK, this region is rich with the potential for Maritimers to tell tall tales with dark ends. There’s also no small amount of tragedy to augment them with a hint of truth. This is where the Blue Men of the Minch dwell, preying upon sailors to pull beneath the waves on high seas, ruling over their domain of squalls and storms.
The Blue Men of the Minch, often called storm kelpies, are the spirits which haunt the brine in this treacherous strait. Living deep below in gloomy caves, they roil to the surface when winds are high and sailors’ fears are nigh. With the sea whipped into a frenzy, it’s easy to imagine pale grasping hands rising up and strange howls on the wind reaching a new deadly intensity.
At times such as these, their chief raises up his people and takes them to the strait, looking for any stricken ship they can capsize and capture. Prisoners get taken below with the hope of escaping lost in a string of bubbles from tortured lungs.
It’s a testament to Scottish fair play, poetic inspiration or plain superstition, but it’s claimed that the chief will call out to boats in a challenge of wits or rhymes. Seeing what fools do take the sea, and what would their terrible fate surely be? If they can best him then they live to sail another day, but if they stumble then they’ve sealed their fate. Still, there are always more fools to challenge and drag beneath.
Blue Chief: Man of the black cap what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?
Skipper: My speedy ship takes the shortest way
And I’ll follow you line by line
Blue Chief: My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you beneath the waves
Skipper: My ship is speedy, my ship is steady
If it sank, it would surely wreck your caves.
When not harassing seafarers or spitting poetry in the rain, The Blue Men are said to be a peaceful and pleasant enough sort. They can apparently be seen basking just beneath the surface on sunny days. Gusts of rainfall are them enjoying a game of shinty when it’s not quite fierce enough to call a storm, their laughter clear on the breeze. Indeed, once or twice our guides have reported strange blue bodies lying beneath the waves on our sea kayaking trip near Torridon. Alas, we’ve yet to confirm these tall tales from modern mariners…
The strongest of all the blue men is said to reside in the Corryvrecken vortex, and one look at it tells you why. The third-largest whirlpool in the world, it certainly catches the imagination with its tidal pull when it’s in condition (the whirlpool is not always present due to the tides). It expands like the throat of a great beast, and sharp teeth wait on the seabed to chew any caught within. As its voice rises full-throated in a roar, sailors take notice and stare transfixed in awe at the hungry sea.
The Royal Navy deems the treacherous region between Scarba and Jura to be navigable, but few come close. Fear of capture within its vast pull keeps most away. A few brave tour companies come near, but it is not a voyage for the faint of heart or careless.
This whirlpool is said to have come into existence when the Winter Goddess Beira (also known as Cailleach Bheur) needed a place to wash her great plaid so that she could lay its fresh whiteness across the land to make winter. Others say that same winter witch saw an Ulster pirate coming to despoil Scotland so she struck up the whirlpool to wreck his ship. So many tales swirl around this site it’s easy to get swept away as they mix. Whatever the truth, we know the Corryvreckan is a natural wonder of which we’d all best take note.
Learn more about the Goddess Beira here.
Selkies are benign and the blue men are best described as playful in their challenging of captains or chasing of unlucky ships. Kelpies are a far more malevolent and fiendish force near Scotland’s lochs and waterways.
This tale warns children away from water, or perhaps it is simply that terrible horses once did lurk in darker times with a taste for youthful flesh. There are stories of them taking the form of handsome strangers and shapeshifting to other forms. Sirens and tricksters you may tame. These are few and far between, for Scots tales tend to take a bleaker hue.
Today we will be focusing on the most consistent of myths: that of the water horse. Forever immortalised near Falkirk with these spectacular silver sculptures.
Taking the form of a beautiful horse, kelpies lurk along the lochside and river course as dusk settles across the land. In this twilight realm they seem especially handsome; dark glossy coats richer and their patient demeanour seeming to beg passersby to come closer. They can be discernible by kelp or seaweed matted in their manes and reversed hooves compared to regular stallions. That and their lethal inclinations. Colouration is no cue, the Spey’s resident kelpie is a stark white in colour compared to other darker beasts. Regardless of how they look, they wait within the shallows for passersby.
Despite a remarkably coherent and consistent set of stories, it seems that there are still some local variations. Around Aberdeen, the beast has a mane of serpents, while others sing to encourage victims to their demise like sirens.
If you’ve been fooled until now by the creature’s innocent and kindly appearance, here is where the tale turns darker. All the kelpie’s machinations intend to draw victims closer and closer, even onto the horse’s back. This is their preference, for it makes what follows easier. Sometimes even succeeding in getting whole groups of children or couples to climb on. Stretching perversely beneath them to allow more and more to clamber to their fate.
It is here that they discover quite how much trouble they’re in. The kelpie’s sticky skin seems to cling wherever it touches. A tangled mass of seaweed hair tangles in hands so that their prey cannot escape. The water kelpie then plunges into the deeper parts of loch, river or darkened pool, rolling beneath the waves to drown poor passengers. Screaming with fear at least until they hit the water’s surface, then… silence.
Only bubbles and regrets rise from beneath still waters.
With the horrible deed done, they will then feed on the meat of their victims – with a particular preference for the liver. Far from careful eaters, gore and viscera of the departed will often wash up to harrow those left behind. This seems to be no accident in the story though, for even when remains don’t wash up there is ever a witness. Often a less capable or younger child, they’re damned to watch the drowning in full and report back to other youths and parents. In some cases, they’re on the cusp of boarding and the kelpie’s impatience to charge off spares them. Instead only having a finger or hand touching, yanked off quite brutally rather than a far worse fate.
There are tales of bridling the water horse, tricking them into servitude. Unwitting heroes can banish the beast by saying its true name. It seems that these are by far the exception rather than the rule, some small comfort for scared folks. Similar tales surround water bodies as far away as Australia, Central America and all across Europe. The common thread is that they’re as much about the horror being seen and reported as the deed itself. The terror of the tale travelling far and wide to have the greatest effect.
And if ever a tale was to warn away careless youths from waterfalls and rivers – or perhaps unwise maidens from taking up with handsome strangers – then the kelpie seems exactly the beast to frighten them into good behaviour.
Then again, ancient stories have merit and there are few enough survivors of a Kelpie to report the truth. It may be that foul horses lurk and caution is the wisest course of action.
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