Scottish myths, folklore and legends

Kelpies

The mythical kelpie is a supernatural water horse that was said to haunt Scotland’s lochs and lonely rivers. The kelpie would appear to victims as a lost dark grey or white pony but could be identified by its constantly dripping mane. It would entice people to ride on its back, before taking them down to a watery grave.

Selkies

Selkies were mythical creatures that could transform themselves from seal to human form and back again. The legend of the selkie apparently originated on the Orkney and Shetland Islands where selch or selk(ie) is the Scots word for seal.

Tales once abounded of a man who found a beautiful female selkie sunbathing on a beach, stole her skin and forced her to become his wife and bear his children, only for her to find the skin years later and escape back to seal form and the sea.

The Loch Ness Monster (‘Nessie’)

One of Scotland’s most famous unsolved mysteries is that of the Loch Ness Monster (or ‘Nessie’ as it has affectionately come to be known).

The large dinosaur-like creature is reputed to inhabit Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. The first recorded sighting of the monster was nearly 1,500 years ago when a giant beast is said to have leaped out of a lake near Inverness and ate a local farmer. Since then the myth of the Loch Ness Monster has magnified.

In 1934, a London doctor snapped a photograph that seemed to show a dinosaur-looking creature with a long neck emerging from the water. Dozens of sightings have since been claimed, many of which have turned out to be hoaxes. In 2009, a newspaper reader claims to have spotted ‘Nessie’ whilst browsing Google Earth’s satellite photos of Loch Ness.

Regardless of the truth, the suggestion of the monster's existence makes Loch Ness one of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions with thousands visiting it shores each year with the hope of catching a rare glimpse of the famous monster.

Robert the Bruce and the Spider

Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland in 1306. Edward I of England took immediate action, forcing him into hiding. According to legend, at some point while he was on the run and when he was at his lowest ebb, Bruce hid himself in a cave. There, he watched a spider spinning a web from one part of the cave to the other. Watching the spider try and try again to build her web before succeeding is said to have inspired Bruce to carry on fighting the English. He did so, and after the death of Edward I in 1307, Bruce defeated Edward II's armies at Bannockburn in 1314.

There are a number of caves in South West Scotland that claim to be the one where Bruce watched the spider. No one is certain which is the authentic cave or even if the incident with the spider ever really happened.

The legend of Sawney Bean

The story of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends, and wouldn’t be out of place in a modern horror movie. It is unknown whether Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean was actually a real person or just a creation of Scottish folklore, but the story is certainly of some intrigue.

According to legend, Sawney Bean was the head of a criminal, cannibalistic family in the 15th century, during the reign of King James I of Scotland. It is claimed that he, his wife and 46 children and grandchildren killed and fed on over a thousand people before they were captured and executed.

Other Scottish mythical creatures

  • Wulver: a werewolf in Shetland, that is said to have had the body of a man with a wolf’s head. It was reported to have left fish on the windowsills of poor families.
  • Blue men of Minch: blue-skinned men who lived in the water between Lewis and mainland Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and boats to sink.
  • Bean-Nighe: Scottish Gaelic for ‘washer woman’, is a Scottish fairy seen as an omen of death. It is said she could be found by streams and pools washing the clothes of those who are about to die.

Explore more of Scotland's history and folklore

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More about Robert the Bruce

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Last updated 25 Nov 2012