Scotland is a country full of legends and lore, some based on real historical events and some which should perhaps not be taken so seriously. Whatever the provenance of these stories, they are always sure to entertain both visitor and local alike.
In this blog post, we will list our favourite peculiar and uncanny Scottish stories and will describe where to experience them (or not as the case may be!). Visit these amazing locations and decide for yourself where the truth lies.
Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these locations appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the myths and legends of Scotland, or indeed, a general tour of this fascinating country.
Perhaps the most famous Scottish witches are those that Macbeth encountered. They have probably influenced the modern film caricature of the witch, with the long nose and pointy hat, but being a witch and practicing witchcraft was a great fear that swept through most of Europe during medieval times. From the early sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century perhaps as many as 6,000 people, mainly women, were tried for witchcraft in Scotland, with more than 1,500 being executed.
There are many places where the victims of this shocking persecution have been memorialised. In Dornoch ‘The Witch's Stone’ can be seen in the back garden of local residency. The stone commemorates the burning of Janet Horne in 1727, who had a hand deformity which convinced her superstitious neighbours that she was in league with the devil.
Forres, in Moray, has its own ‘Witches Stone’ which can be seen on Victoria Road. The following inscription is on the stone: "WITCHES STONE. From Cluny Hill witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrels stopped, they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the site of one such burning."
The Maggie Wall Witch Monument can be visited just to the west of Dunning, in Perthshire (///chugging.solves.copies). There is some doubt as to whether ‘Maggie Wall’ was real person, but what seems certain is that at least half-a-dozen women in Dunning were burned as witches, and the tower of stones may have been to commemorate this.
A more fictional tale of witchcraft has been immortalised in the popular fantasy TV series Outlander, where the character, Geillis Duncan is tried and burned as a witch. The trial was filmed at Tibbermore Church, near Perth. But a little-known fact is that there was an actual woman called Geillis Duncan in Tranent who was tried for witchcraft in 1591.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Access to Tibbermore Church can be made through prior arrangement with the keyholder (email email@example.com), but even without access, the church and graveyard is quite fascinating.
Count Dracula is perhaps more associated with Transylvania or maybe even Whitby, where the Bram Stoker’s fictional first comes ashore in Britain. However, did you know that Stoker used New Slains Castle as his story’s inspiration? Stoker spent many holidays up in the village of Cruden Bay, just north of Aberdeen, and it was his visits to the castle which influenced the development of his story. Indeed, early drafts of his novel had Dracula coming ashore at Cruden Bay after his sea voyage from Transylvania. The Irish author would often stay at the Kilmarnock Arms, which is still welcoming visitors, as well as providing excellent meals.
New Slains Castle was built in 1597 around the existing tower house at Bowness, with the tower being extended and buildings added around a courtyard. However, the building fell into disrepair during the early 1900’s, and today it only a fascinating shell of a castle.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you visit the Kilmarnock Arms, ask at reception and they will show you the visitors book signed by Stoker himself!
9. Templar Mysteries
Thanks to the 2003 mystery thriller ‘The Da Vinci Code’, by Dan Brown, the mysteries and wonder of the Knights Templar have remerged in the public conscience, fascinating a generation of readers. Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Edinburgh, finds itself the focus of the book’s finale. It is easy to understand why the chapel was woven into this thriller, having links to the Templars through the Sinclair family that built it in 1446 and also to the enigmatic architecture and design that seems to point to some secret meanings or knowledge.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: After visiting the chapel, make sure to walk down to the beautiful Roslin Glen, going past Rosslyn Castle on the way.
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8. Brahan Seer
Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus and his prophesies is Kenneth Mackenzie, also known as the Brahan Seer. His prophecies have been interpreted as referring to, the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances, the building of the Caledonian Canal, the discovery of North Sea oil, and Margaret Thatcher.
If the Brahan Seer did actually exist, it seems that he may not have predicted his own death. When asked by Isabella, 3rd Countess of Seaforth, why her husband was late returning home he told her that her husband was dallying in Paris with a lady who was more attractive than the Countess herself. The seer’s reward was to be hauled off to Chanonry Point where he was burned to death in a barrel of tar, which is where you can see his memorial today
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Look out for the large pod of dolphins that swim off Chanonry Point and also check out the handsome lighthouse that guards the peninsula.
Read on to find out which story tops the list.
7. Tam O'Shanter
One of Rabbie Burns’ most famous poems is that of Tam O’Shanter, the character who discovers a coven of partying witches. After being chased by the witches, he manages to evade them by crossing the Brig o’ Doon (in Alloway, Ayrshire), since witches can’t cross running water.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The bridge and Alloway in general is a treasure trove of Rabbie Burns attractions, including the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, as well as the Burns Cottage.
6. Creatures of the Deep – Selkies, Kelpies, Mermaids and Nessie
Scotland has its fair share of scary water monsters, such as the Selkie, which can change from seal to human form by shedding their skin, and the Kelpie, another shape-shifting creature that looks similar to a horse. The Selkie is more of a Norse tradition, so it is no surprise that many of the sightings and stories surrounding this beast centres around the beautiful coast of the Orkney Islands. The Kelpies were more of a Celtic myth and the most impressive visual representation of these spirits can be found in the 30-metre-high sculptures designed by Andy Scott, near Falkirk. There is also a very interesting visitor centre on site that expands on the legend.
A perhaps less frightening prospect would be an encounter with a mermaid. With an extensive coast and many islands, the seas around Scotland have inspired many stories of these women with fish tails. Our favourite representation of this denizen of the deep is the ‘Mermaid of the North’ in Balintore, near Tain, which is a sculpture by the talented local, Steve Hayward.
The most famous critter though must be the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie. The earliest record of this water beast was made in 565AD by Adomnan, the biographer of Columba, when the saint managed to ward off this evil creature. But it wasn’t until the advent of a good tarmacked road in the 1930’s, opening up the loch to more visitors, that reports of a mysterious serpentine monster really grabbed the public’s attention.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Nessie is said to live in the submerged caves below Urquhart Castle, so this is perhaps going to be the best spot to make a sighting of the elusive terror.
5. Earth Energies & Sacred Sites
This category is fairly subjective and a little hard to pin down. Depending on what you believe and what sources you read, there are a number of places in Scotland that have a something a bit different about them, a different feeling around them perhaps. I’m not sure I picked up on any of the vibes, but two places that are just simply a pleasure to visit, which have an esoteric reputation are Cairnpapple Hill and Schiehallion Mountain.
Cairnpapple is a rare ceremonial complex in the Bathgate Hills. Cairnpapple’s henge dates from about 3800 BC. Centuries later the landscape was chosen for a number of Bronze Age burials. Much later still, it was used for early Christian graves. The earliest traces of activity are six hearths dating from about 5,500 years ago.
Schiehallion is a 3,553-foot-high mountain in Perth & Kinross which is one of the easiest Munros to climb in Scotland. The wide and rough footpath offers visitors superb views of the surrounding countryside on a hike to the summit that should take 3-4 hours in total. It takes the form of a broad ridge, with the famous conical appearance only apparent from across Loch Rannoch.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Outlander fans can see Schiehallion from the site where the fictional Craigh na Dun was filmed.
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The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn, and has been a Scottish heraldic symbol since the 12th century. This horse-like creature has commonly been a symbol of purity and grace since ancient times, but it is probably its natural enmity towards lions that made it the choice for Scottish Royalty (English royals had adopted the lion as their symbol about a hundred years before!).
Unicorns can be found all over Scotland, sometimes in the least expected places. Two of Nuart Aberdeen Festival’s murals feature unicorns, one by Portuguese artist Bordalo II and the other by German artists Herakut. Meanwhile, the ship HMS Unicorn is berthed along Dundee’s quayside. Then there is the Preston coat of arms cut into the walls of Craigmillar Castle, while a painting from BAS8 (the British Art Show) is currently being displayed at Aberdeen Art Gallery. Unicorn statues even stand proud on top of the Mercat Crosses of Aberdeen, Dunfermline, Jedburgh, Melrose, Culross, Crail and Cupar.
Perhaps the most famous example of unicorns on display in Scotland, however, are the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries and supporting wall decorations in Stirling Castle. Historic Scotland commissioned a set of seven hand-made tapestries in 2002, recreating the ones currently residing in New York’s Cloisters Museum. Historians studying the reign of James IV believe that a similar series of "Unicorn" tapestries were part of the Scottish Royal tapestry collection.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Once you feel that you have spotted all the unicorns displayed around Scotland, try looking for the ‘Lion Rampant’ that has been displayed on the Scottish coat of arms since the 13th century.
Do you believe in Fairies? Well, many in Scotland did and perhaps still do judging by the multitude of locations named after the fairy folk and the number of stories that circulate. So much so that this will be the topic of our next travel blog – where to find fairies in Scotland.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Protective charms used to ward off naughty fairies include church bells and wearing clothing inside out!
Have you guessed yet which legend tops the list?
2. Stone Circles
One of the ancient mysteries of Northern Europe is what stone circles and standing stones were used for. Theories abound, but what is definite is that these massive stones were arranged in a very deliberate way for a very important reason.
Our previous blog post described twenty-one of Aberdeenshire’s almost 200 stone circles, but these enigmatic monoliths can be found in all parts of Scotland. From Kilmartin in Argyll to the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, from the Clava Cairns near Inverness to the Marionburgh circle in Moray - 4,000 years of history are at you finger tips!
Tailor-Made Top Tip: Aberdeenshire, along with South West Ireland, are the only places in the world where you can see ‘Recumbent’ stone circles.
Ghost stories have captivated and scared people down through the ages and with so many historic buildings, bloody battles and violent episodes, it is no surprise that Scotland abounds with such stories.
Castles in particular seem to attract many spectral visitations. One of Crathes Castle’s ghosts is the Green Lady, who often manifests as a green mist floating across the room. It is even said that Queen Victoria saw the apparition during a visit. Then there is Balgonie Castle, haunted by its own ‘Green Lady’, called Green Jeanie, and there are also stories of a spectral 17th-century soldier, the sounds of a ghostly dog, a hooded figure and a medieval apparition. Or perhaps the ghost of a nursemaid who was killed for dropping the baby son of the clan chief from a window at Duntulm Castle would send shivers down your spine. There is also the sound of the Ghost Piper of Culzean Castle which is often heard along the cliff tops. Whichever castle in Scotland that you choose to visit, you are sure to hear a strange tale or two about the building’s restless spirits.
Tailor-Made Top Tip: The National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland maintain many of Scotland’s best castles to visit. An annual membership for one or even both organisations is a great way to save money on the price of entrance tickets.
Scotland is a land full of myths, magic and monsters. Whether you believe in any of it, you are still sure to find the stories and locations both entertaining and captivating. And you never know, keep you eyes peeled as you explore Scotland, as you may find yourself face to face with Nessie, a fairy or even a ghost!
Comment below and let us know what your favourite myth and legend of Scotland is.
Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these …… appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the myths and legends of Scotland, or indeed, a general tour of this fascinating country.
Join us again on our family adventures when we discover where to find Scotland’s fairies. We post every two weeks and you can subscribe to our latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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