The folklore of Scotland is a tapestry of culture and history. Created by persons, places and event, our land is bursting with legendary tales and mythological anecdotes. Think of everything from ghosts, vampires and deadly premonitions to unexplained monster-like creatures, witches, and body snatchers.
Handed down through the telling of stories, some of the Scottish folk tales are witty while some downright terrifying. What they have in common, however, is that you are always left asking do I believe it or not?
Explore Scotland’s most famous history and learn about our incredible stories; they’re just waiting to be told.
1. The Green Lady of Crathes Castle
Within the walls of the 16th century Crathes Castle stalks the Green Lady, a forlorn spectre said to be a harbinger of doom for the Burnett Family. But who is she?
The Green Lady always appears in the same room, pacing back and forth from the fireplace, sometimes cradling an infant in her arms.
Some say that she is an apparition of a servant girl who fell pregnant out of wedlock and fled the castle never to be seen again. But a grisly discovery allegedly unearthed while the castle was being renovated in the 1800s tells a far more sinister story. It is said that beneath the hearthstone of the fireplace workmen uncovered the skeletal remains of a woman and child.
She may not have been sighted in many years, but one thing is certain: an unspeakable sense of dread is felt by all who dare to step foot in the room of the Green Lady.
Plan a visit to Crathes Castle.
2. Headless Drummer of Edinburgh Castle
Sometimes in the dead of night or at dawn or dusk, the distant sound of drumming can be heard reverberating around the fortress of Edinburgh Castle. Take care, for it means an ancient harbinger of doom is approaching.
No one knows exactly who or what the source of this ghostly sound is, but legends tell us it belongs to one of Edinburgh Castle’s infamous phantoms: the Headless Drummer Boy. His identity and the story behind his decapitation remain a mystery, but it is said he made his first appearance in 1650. This was the fateful year Oliver Cromwell launched his invasion of Scotland which culminated in the capture of the castle following a three-month siege. Ever since then the drummer has been seen as bad omen whose apparition foretells imminent disaster for the castle.
Even now, during quiet times of the day, the unmistakable ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ sound of drums is heard, seemingly emanating from all directions, without a mortal drummer to be seen or found.
Explore Edinburgh Castle.
Hopeless romantics, beware. The selkie (Orcadian dialect for seal) is an alluring shape-shifting creature which resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on dry land. The graceful selkie may look astonishingly beautiful, but they can leave you lovesick forever.
Eternally lustful, a selkie will capture the hearts of human beings and then disappear forever into the ocean, leaving behind a few broken hearts.
Yes, it is thought that both male and female selkies can elegantly emerge from the water as beautiful people and wield intense seductive powers over humans. After finding love and spending years on land, ‘selkie folk’ will always crave a return to the sea, their rightful home. In some tales, humans hide the seal skins to prevent them returning home to the ocean.
Other stories say that selkies have a moral conscious and return to play with their children at the seashore and visit them regularly once they’ve gone back to the sea.
4. The Loch Ness Monster
What lurks beneath the surface of Loch Ness? Stories over the centuries paint a picture of a strange, dinosaur-like creature. There may be no conclusive footage of the beast, but the legend of Nessie endures still.
Everyone knows the grainy photographs that appear to show some unidentified creature emerging from the depths of Loch Ness, many of them dismissed as hoaxes. But what explanation can there be for the countless unsettling eyewitness accounts of the Loch Ness Monster recorded over the years? The earliest sighting dates to the sixth century. The Irish monk Saint Columba was on his way to Inverness to visit the King of the Picts when he crossed paths with the fearsome creature which had been terrorising the locals on the shore of the loch. Making the sign of the cross, Columba commanded the creature to return from whence it came. The monster miraculously obeyed and disappeared beneath the waves. Throughout the centuries, the sightings have continued.
Go Nessie spotting at Loch Ness.
5. Fingals Cave and The Irish Giant
Fingal’s Cave, situated on the uninhabited island of Staffa, is wrapped in myth.
Maybe it was giants, or maybe it was volcanic activity – there could be several scientific reasons why the awe-inspiring formation of Fingal’s Cave came into existence. What we know is this mystifying sea cave inspired a Mendelssohn overture, an epic poem by James Macpherson and a painting by Turner.
It became known as Fingal’s Cave, following the publication of Macpherson’s poem about the hero Fingal, or Fionn mac Cumhaill. In Gaelic and Irish mythology, he was a courageous warrior who built a causeway between Scotland and Northern Ireland, called the Giant’s Causeway, still seen today off the coast of Northern Ireland. The columns on Staffa are thought to be remains of this connecting bridge, with both formed from the same basalt columns. But was Fionn a normal-sized man, or a giant? Did he build the causeway to fight another giant or to be friends? Whatever story you believe, Fingal’s Cave is certainly an incredible feat.
Take a boat tour of Isle of Staffa.
6. Legend of Robert the Bruce and the Spider
Crowned King of Scots in 1306, Robert the Bruce was a ruler that history books remember as being Scotland’s most successful monarch, winning the country independence in the early 14th century. But before, Bruce led his small army of Scotland against England six times – and six times they were defeated, eventually forcing Robert into hiding.
Legend has it that when Robert’s spirits were broken, he took a refugee in a cave. There, he noticed a small spider attempting to weave a web. The spider tried and failed continually, each time climbing back up to try again. Finally, the spider succeeded, and this is said to have inspired Robert to return and carry on fighting the English despite overwhelming odds. He did so and went on to defeat Edward II’s forces at Battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314. This triumph ultimately turned the tides towards later winning the independence of Scotland in 1328.
7. Macbeth and The Three Witches
The real-life Macbeth was King of Scots, who ruled over the Kingdom of Alba in 11th century… but most of us known Macbeth from the spooky horror story set by Shakespeare in Scotland.
The fictional Macbeth, a Scottish duke, was brave and loyal to his king. Yet, after meeting three witches and hearing a prophecy that he would become king himself, Macbeth was consumed by ambition and greed. Spurred to action by his scheming wife, and encouraged by the prophecy, he murdered King Duncan in his sleep at Cawdor Castle and seized the throne. Later, having also killed his friend Banquo, he is haunted by visions of his ghost at a banquet. When he encountered the three witches again, they made him believe he was unbeatable. Despite that, Macbeth’s guilt, fear, and paranoia led him to commit even more murders to secure his power. His confidence in the prophecies eventually led to his downfall, and he was overthrown and killed by those he wronged.
Learn more about the figure of Macbeth.
8. Burke and Hare
Meet William Burke and William Hare, Edinburgh – if not Scotland’s – most ghoulish residents. These two Irish immigrants gained infamy notching up a total of 17 victims in the late 1820s, to supply anatomist Dr Knox with fresh corpses for lectures and research.
At the time, Edinburgh was, as it is now, renowned for its spearheading of medical science. Unfortunately, the cadavers needed for research were in short supply in the early 1800s, and Scottish law required that corpses used for medical research should only come from those who had died in prison, suicide victims, or from foundlings and orphans. The shortage of corpses led to a doctor at Edinburgh College, Robert Knox, paying for illegally exhumed corpses, and what came with that – an increase in body snatching. And so, the body snatching trade flourished.
Their crimes were eventually detected. Hare was granted immunity in return for testifying against Burke, who was found guilty and executed. He was then publicly dissected at Edinburgh Medical College and his skeleton remains on display at the college museum to this day.
Visit Surgeon’s Hall Museum.
9. The Gorbals Vampire
One evening in September 1954, a policeman was called to Glasgow‘s Southern Necropolis following reports that the cemetery was overrun with children. Armed with crudely fashioned stakes, knives and even dogs, hundreds of local children patrolled the gravestones and mausoleums, announcing that they were hunting the 7-foot ‘Gorbals Vampire’ which they accused of devouring two little boys with its iron fangs.
Could it be possible that they had heard or even caught a glimpse of ‘Jenny wi’ the ‘airn teeth’? This sharp toothed hag was said to have roamed Glasgow Green since the 19th century, preying on unsuspecting children to eat. Creeping up behind her victim, she would sink her metal jaws into them, dragging them back to her secret lair for her supper, never to be seen again.
Many dismiss Jenny as a cautionary tale spun by parents to keep their offspring from wandering off, but will we ever know what monstrous thing it was that drove the children to the Southern Necropolis that night?
Visit Glasgow Necropolis.
10. Massacre of Glencoe
At five o’clock in the morning on the 13th of February, as a blizzard howled down from the rugged peaks of the Aonach Eagach in the village of Glencoe, some 120 men led by Campbell of Glenlyon who had – for almost a fortnight – amicably shared the MacDonald’s homes, tables, and company, turned on their hosts in an unprecedented act of treachery. Parties of around 20 men were dispatched to fall upon the glen’s various settlements, each with orders to enter the main homes and kill without hesitation. They shot, bayoneted and burned to death 38 men, women and children of the MacDonald clan, who all lay dead in puddles of blood in the snow or their homes.
The slaughter was done in the name of William III and Mary II, joint king and queen of Scotland, allegedly for failing to pledge allegiance to the new protestant monarchs and remaining loyal to the deposed catholic King James II and the Jacobite cause.
11. The Crown Jewels and Honours of Scotland
The Honours of Scotland – the crown, the sword and sceptre – might date from the late 15th and early 16th century, but they were well looked after and can be seen on display today at Edinburgh Castle, alongside the stone of Destiny – a stone used for enthroning Scottish monarchs at Iona, Dunadd and Scone.
The story of the Scottish regalia is stranger than fiction. First, they served to crown Scottish kings and queens – they were first used together at the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle in 1543, and last worn at the coronation of Charles II at Scone Palace in 1651.
Then, they were hidden in the mid-17th century to stop them from falling into the hands of Oliver Cromwell. After that, they were used at sittings during the first Scottish Parliament to represent the monarch. And finally, following the Treaty of Union in 1707, they were no longer needed so, just like in a fairytale, they were locked away in a chest in Edinburgh Castle and forgotten about for over 100 years, until they were rediscovered and put on display.
See the Scottish regalia at Edinburgh Castle.
12. Standing stones
When the first settlers arrived in Scotland over 10,000 years ago, it is thought that they erected large imposing standing stones. Why, may you ask? They may be big, heavy and made of stone, but what do they mean, and why do they exist? Many questions surround the clusters of standing stones dotted across Scotland.
The iconic Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis, known as Fir Bhreig meaning the ‘false men’ in Gaelic, are believed to be the petrified souls of the distant past. Legends say that the stones were once giants, turned into stone by a saint when they refused to convert to Christianity.
There are more weird tales connected to the stones. At the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, people have been known to sit patiently and await aliens and UFO landings.
On the Isle of Arran, it is thought that a group of fairies once sat atop the mountain, Durra-na-each, and passed the time by flicking pebbles onto the moor below. The pebbles became large stones and formed the six stone circles of Machrie Moor.
Learn more about standing stones in Scotland.
Join in with Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 as we celebrate stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland.