Scotland is home to hundreds of magnificent coastal spots and beautiful stretches of sandy coastlines. But did you know, our shores are also home to spooky myths and ancient legends that have circled Scotland’s waters and coasts for centuries. Keep reading to find out more about some of the most iconic Scottish myths and some lesser-known legends. Decide for yourself which ones could be real and which are folklore.
Learn more in Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters where you’ll be swept away by the country’s magnificent ties to water which has shaped the landscape we know and love.
1. Corryvreckan Whirlpool
The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a narrow strait that lies between the islands of Jura and Scarba. Its name comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning ‘cauldron of the speckled seas’ or ‘cauldron of the plaid’. Located off the west coast of Scotland, it is the third largest whirlpool in the world, with strong tides creating waves more than 30 ft high (9.1 m) while the eerie roar can be heard from 10 miles away (16 km).
Legend says a Scandinavian Prince, Breakan, fell in love with a princess on one of the islands. Her father consented to the marriage, but only if Breakan could show his skill and courage by anchoring his boat for three days and three nights in the whirlpool. The prince had three ropes made; one from hemp, one from wool and one from a Norwegian maiden’s hair. It was said that the purity of the maiden’s hair would make the rope unbreakable. However, on the first night, the hemp rope snapped, on the second the wool rope snapped, and on the third night, the hair rope snapped. The boat was dragged under. When the only surviving crew member dragged the body of the prince ashore, the maiden, wracked with guilt, confessed that she was not as pure as she had made out; and that’s why the rope broke.
Find out more about the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.
2. The Selkie Folk of the Orkney Isles
Selkies are mythical creatures that can transform themselves from seal to human and back again. The most common tale of the selkie is that a man once found a beautiful, female selkie sunbathing on a beach. Captivated, he stole her seal skin and kept her prisoner as a human for years. It was said she was often spotted gazing longingly out to sea. After many years she found her seal skin hidden away, so she stole it back and escaped back out to sea, never to return.
Learn more about the elusive Selkie Folk.
3. The Kelpie
One of the more popular legends of Scotland, kelpies are large, shape-shifting aquatic animals that are said to haunt the rivers and streams of Scotland, usually in the shape of a horse. Although they may look like gentle giants, kelpies were said to be malevolent and nasty beasts that would harm anyone and anything in their way. Much like the selkies, these water horses could also appear in human form. The sound of a kelpie’s tail as it enters the water has been said to sound like thunder. So, if you are passing by a river and hear an unearthly wailing or howling, there may be a kelpie nearby!
4. Loch Ness Monster
The Loch Ness Monster needs no introduction! The most famous Scottish myth, Nessie is said to be a large dinosaur-like creature which lurks in the depths of Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. Over the last few centuries, hundreds of ‘sightings’ have been reported, from people claiming to have seen the fabled monster for themselves. Many of these have turned out to be large logs floating in the water, lapping waves resembling a fin or animal, or even just a hoax to win a local prize! However, Loch Ness is Scotland’s deepest and longest freshwater loch which holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined, so who knows, maybe there could be a giant creature lurking down there.
Find out more about the Loch Ness Monster.
5. Morag the Monster of Loch Morar
A lesser known Scottish monster, but a potential sister to Nessie, Morag is the resident mythical creature of Loch Morar, on the west coast of Scotland, not too far from Loch Ness. Like Loch Ness, it has a long history of monster sightings. The first recorded sighting of Morag was in 1887, while in 1948 nine people reported that they saw a 20ft-long creature in the loch from their boat. The greatest excitement came in 1969 when two men claimed to have accidentally hit Morag with their boat. The poor creature is said to have disappeared after one of the men hit it with an oar while his companion opened fire with a rifle!
But what do you think? Could Nessie have a little sister hiding away on the west coast?
Learn more about Morag the Monster.
6. The Giants of Fingal’s Cave
Fingal’s Cave is located on the Isle of Staffa on the west coast of Scotland. The towering volcanic basalt columns and remarkable symmetry of its 227 ft cavern is an incredible sight to see. Aside from the staggering views the cave provides, it is also entwined in myths.
Fingal’s Cave was created some 60 million years ago by an ancient lava flow, possibly the same one that created the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which is directly across the sea. Both are seen to be made of the same volcanic basalt columns so legend says that they were the end pieces of a huge road built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, so he could make it to Scotland where he was to duel with Fingal, his gigantic Scottish rival. But what do you believe?
Find out more about Fingal’s Cave.
7. Ghost Pipers of Scotland
The patriotic tunes of bagpipes playing is not an uncommon sound to hear in Scotland. Neither is hearing a tale or two of a phantom piper being spotted or heard, right across the country. In days gone by, a dark network of tunnels was said to extend from the Cove of Grennan to the cliffs of Clanyard Bay, near Stranraer in Dumfries & Galloway. It was believed by locals that faeries lived in these tunnels, although no one dared venture in to find out. One day a piper and his loyal dog entered the tunnels whilst playing the pipes, only to never be seen or heard from again. The tunnels are now long gone but it is said you can sometimes hear the faint sound of bagpipes playing from deep underground where the tunnels used to be.
Culzean Castle is an incredible fortress perched on the dramatic cliffs of the Ayrshire coast and features a stunning garden to explore as well as centuries of history to uncover. A ghostly piper is said to play his pipes in the grounds, particularly when a member of the Kennedy family is about to get married. He has also been heard playing on stormy nights, the plaintive drone of his pipes floating over the sound of wind and crashing waves from the ocean below.
Explore more spooky sightings and tales on Scotland’s Ghost Trail.
8. The Hauntings of Blackness Castle
Another towering fortress by the sea, Blackness Castle has grown in fame over recent years after starring in the Outlander TV series. Due to its shape and location, the castle is also known as the ‘ship that never sailed’ and the prison tower is said to be haunted by a knight in armour.
The tower was used to house French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and also prisoners taken during the Seven Years War, so there were many deaths and great sufferings that occurred here. Visitors of the castle have often said it was ‘full of foreboding’ and that the eerie passageway to the courtyard does nothing to help.
The castle has also been said to host some strange paranormal activity, and even experienced investigators are said to find that the castle makes them nervous. When the castle has been investigated by paranormal groups, many unexplained noises have been heard including furniture being dragged along the stone floors. When the investigators check, the rooms are empty and the noises have stopped. They only start up again once everyone has left.
Find out more about the ghosts of Blackness Castle.
9. Blue Men of the Minch
The Blue Men of the Minch, also known as storm kelpies, were a group of Hebridean mythological creatures that would lurk in the northern waters of Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and boats to sink. Apart from their blue colour, these mythical creatures looked just like humans, but had the power to create storms, and would swim with their torsos raised out of the sea, twisting and diving as porpoises do. It is thought that these mythical blue men may have been a personification of the sea, or originated from the time of the Picts, whose painted bodies may have given the impression of men wading in the water as they crossed the sea in boats resembling kayaks.
Find out more about the Blue Men of the Minch.
Seonaidh was a Celtic water spirit found by the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It is said that the inhabitants of the island used to appease Seonaidh with a cup of ale. The local townspeople came to the church of St Mulway where every family provided a bag of malt, which was later brewed into ale. One night, a member of the town was chosen to wade through the sea up to his waist, carrying in his hand the cup full of ale. When he reached a proper depth, he stood and cried aloud:
‘Seonaidh, I give thee this cup of ale, hoping that thou wilt be so good as to send us plenty of seaware* for enriching our ground during the coming year.’
He then threw the ale into the sea. After the ceremony, everyone returned to their homes, in the hope that they had ensured a plentiful crop for the next season. It is said that Seonaidh was originally some kind of pagan god. However, it is also possible that Seonaidh, the Scottish Gaelic form of the English ‘Johnny’, may also be a reference to one of the saints named John.
Learn more about Seonaidh.
*seaware – seaweed used as fertilizer.
11. The Nuckelavee – Devil o’ the Sea
This Orcadian devil o’ the sea is not one for the faint of heart. Like something straight from a horror film, the Nuckelavee was a creature of terror and sheer evil, whose sole purpose was to plague the islanders – a task from which he rarely rested. The name Nuckelavee derives from Orcadian knoggelvi, and according to Orkney resident folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, it means “Devil of the Sea”. The same mythical demon is called a mukkelevi in Shetland, where it was considered a nasty sea devil.
Despite being considered a creature of the sea, the Nuckelavee often roamed freely on land, where he was seen to be riding a steed as monstrous as himself. The stories and legends of this creature vary, with some saying it resembled a centaur-like appearance, whereas others say he had a wide mouth that jutted out like a pig’s snout and a single red eye that burned with a red flame. What do you think?
Find out more about the devilish Nuckelavee.
12. Stories of Aberdeenshire: Forvie and the Devilish Priest
The beautiful region of Aberdeenshire is home to a spine-tingling legend or two that will put you in the spooky spirit for Halloween. Tales have swirled around for years of a terrible storm that decimated the dunes of the now Forvie National Nature Reserve and swamped the village of Forvie. But how did it really happen?
In the 1400s, a new priest arrived at the town of Forvie but the villagers quickly became suspicious when he kept to himself, avoided festivities and didn’t visit the sick. Soon after, young girls from the village started to go missing, including the baker’s daughter.
One night the baker and his brother, the local blacksmith, went looking for her and came across a cave below the chapel that they had never seen before. As they approached the cave, they noticed it was lit up by flaming torches and a symbol was painted on the wall, a pentagram. The young girl was found in the depths of the cave and rescued.
The village later heard the news and swarmed the chapel to confront the priest. The priest, realising his secret was revealed, conjured up a swirling storm of wind, sand and sea that raged all night and day engulfing the village and allowing him to escape. Only the very top of the chapel was left visible.
What do think? Could it be true? Meteorological records show that in August 1413 a combination of extreme tides and high winds blew the sands from the beach strand at Forvie inland, creating a 100-ft high dune which smothered the village.
Read up on more fascinating tales and legends from Aberdeenshire’s past.
13. Loch Earn Water Horse
Did you hear that Loch Earn is inhabited by a legendary water horse – Each Uisge? Legend says it was chased across the hills from Loch Tay by the giant, Fingal. Not just a mere kelpie; this supernatural horse is said to be the most dangerous water creature in Britain, and can even shapeshift, often manifesting as a fine horse, pony or handsome man.
Don’t fall for the handsome looks though. As soon as Each Uisge glimpses or smells someone near the loch, its neck will coil around its victim and hold fast while it rides to the deepest part of the loch where the victim will be drowned and devoured.
That sounds pretty evil to me. Why not visit Loch Earn to decide if this legendary tale could be real?
14. Threave Castle
A popular castle situated in the south of Scotland, Threave Castle sits on an island on the River Dee and has seen its fair share of battles and beheadings. Built by Archibald the Grim, (a name given due to his ghastly grimace during battle), Threave witnessed the beheading of Sir Patrick MacLellan of Bombie.
It was also linked to the infamous Black Dinner when William, sixth Earl of Douglas and his brother David, set out from Threave for Edinburgh Castle, where they were brutally executed.
One disturbing feature of the castle is its historic Gallows Knob. The Douglas’ once boasted it was ‘never without a tassel!’ – meaning there was always the result of a beheading on show! Some visitors to the castle report unexplained breathing noises, feeling ill at ease and voices with no apparent cause.
Some people say this story was used as inspiration in Game of Thrones! Find out more about the turbulent history of Threave Castle.
15. The headless ghost of Buckland Bridge
Near Kirkcudbright in Dumfries & Galloway, Buckland Bridge is said to be haunted by the eerie ghost of a headless woman. It is thought that once upon a time, a farmer from Monkland was travelling home to Kirkcudbright with a young farm hand. At around midnight, they approached the small Buckland Bridge where his pony suddenly got a fright, nearly throwing the farmer from his saddle. The boy who was with him spotted something close by, and when the farmer took a closer look, it was the headless woman, so they got out of there pretty quickly!
The story says although she was murdered in the glen, she returns as a ghost to do good deeds. The farmer and farm hand later heard that some men had been hiding in the glen waiting to rob them – had the headless lady not warned them, who knows what would have happened!
Find out more about Kirkcudbright.
These were just a few of the haunting and spine-chilling myths, legends and tales that Scotland has to offer. We hope this has inspired you to visit some of these spooky spots this Halloween and dip your toes into the mythical and macabre side of Scotland’s past. Why not browse our Ghosts, Myths & Legends eBook where you can learn all about these spooky tales and even listen to our Tales on Tape for an extra eerie experience?