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Scottish Myths & Legends

Updated on September 8, 2013
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What are myths and legends?

"No one in Scotland can escape from the past.
It is everywhere, haunting like a ghost."

Geddes Macgregor


Myths and legends perhaps tell us more about a country and her people than any social, historical or psychological study can.

Although the dictionary definitions of 'myth' and 'legend' lean more towards them being:

  • 'unverifiable stories handed down as historical fact by subsequent generations'
  • 'a story concerning some being, hero or event with an undeterminable basis in fact or natural explanation',

Many of these 'stories' nevertheless began life from a true person or event. Yes, perhaps embellished over the years and tweaked to suit growing trends and fashions. Yet still holding that spark of truth somewhere within - and that's the most fascinating aspect of all.

King Alexander III of Scots

King Alexander the III and the Battle of Largs was the last time Vikings would land on Scottish shores.
King Alexander the III and the Battle of Largs was the last time Vikings would land on Scottish shores. | Source
A sculpture of a Viking Longship at Largs. Set up as memorial to the Vikings and their culture that landed on Scotland's shores.
A sculpture of a Viking Longship at Largs. Set up as memorial to the Vikings and their culture that landed on Scotland's shores. | Source
The monument that marks the Battle of Largs between the Scots and Viking armies.
The monument that marks the Battle of Largs between the Scots and Viking armies. | Source

The Scottish Thistle & The Battle of Largs

The relationship between the Scots and Vikings was a complex one.

For a long period of time, parts of Scotland actually came under the crown of Norway. Although there never was a conquest by the Vikings, the Scots never fully expelled them either.

Throughout Scotland there are fascinating glimpses of the mixing of Scots and Viking cultures. Demonstrating how the two people frequently shared the land without any bloodshed.

Nevertheless, confrontations did take place - understandable given that combat was one of the favourite pastimes of both Scots and Vikings alike.

One battle in particular, according to legend, gave rise to Scotland's national flower - a five foot pretty purple flower with vicious spines - the Scottish Thistle.

The battle of Largs was fought on the west coast of Scotland in 1263.

By this time Norway had lost interest in its properties in the Western Isles and Kintyre. Initially King Alexander III of Scotland aimed to buy back these lands from King Hakon IV of Norway.

However, instead he commenced raids on the Norwegian held Outer Hebrides. This provoked Hakon to launch an invasion towards Scotland.

A massive fleet of Viking longships made its way along the north coast and onto the west coast of Scotland.

King Alexander, who was not at full force, played for time until the rest of his army arrived. He also wondered if by some chance the winds would start to work in their favour and break up the Viking fleet.

The weather did change, but blew the Vikings right onto the Scottish coast, landing near Largs, Ayrshire.

This was good news for the Vikings as they had arrived unannounced under the cover of nightfall. Taking advantage of the situation they decided to try to surprise the sleeping Scots and began to creep bare foot and silent over the terrain towards the Scottish camp.

It was at this point that one of the barefooted Norsemen shrieked out in pain as his foot stepped on the vicious spine of a thistle. This alerted the Scots who rallied to battle – the initiative of surprise was lost for the Vikings.

The bloody and vicious battle went on for hours, with many men on both sides losing their lives.

Eventually, the Vikings, knowing the rest of the Scottish army was not far away, fought their way back to their longships and left Scottish shores.

The King and his Scots were left victors of the bloody field. This would be the last time that Scotland would see a Viking attack fleet on her shores.

Were the three witches of Macbeth real?

Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration for the three witches?
Where did Shakespeare get his inspiration for the three witches? | Source

A Witch's Stone, Forres, Scotland.

A witch's stone. These mark the place where so many unfortunate souls died horribly.
A witch's stone. These mark the place where so many unfortunate souls died horribly. | Source
Forres in the Higlands of Scotland. The place where King Macbeth met the three sister witches.
Forres in the Higlands of Scotland. The place where King Macbeth met the three sister witches. | Source

MacBeth's Real Witches?

Nearly everyone has heard of Shakespeare's gripping play "Macbeth". However, although William Shakespeare was an awesome writer his historical accuracy is not so hot.

King Macbeth and his Queen – Gruoch – were very different from the dark, murderous pair of Shakespeare’s tragedy. By all accounts they were very fair, just and a popular royal couple.

However, what about three of the other famous characters from the play - the witches? The Town of Forres in Moray, Speyside - where Shakespeare's Macbeth meets the witches - does have a long history of witchcraft and executions for the practice.

It's believed that the inspiration for Macbeth’s witches may have originated from a legend about a Scottish king who over a hundred years before King Macbeth.

In 962 AD King Duff came to the throne of Scotland. Shortly after his reign began, the king was wounded in a battle against another claimant to the Scottish crown.

However, legend states that the King's wound or illness was due to witchcraft. The story relates that some of Duff's supporters were rounding up rebels in the area and they came across three sisters who were witches.

They also found them burning a wax effigy of King Duff. It's these three sister witches who may have been the inspiration for the characters in the play 'Macbeth'.

Although the sister witches may be legend, their execution description was horrific and accurate for the times. They were put into large barrels that was filled with tar - sometimes the barrels had spikes on the bottom or driven through the sides. The barrels were then rolled down Cluny Hill on the south side of the town of Forres.

Where ever the barrels stopped, the place would be marked by a stone - called a 'witch's stone'. The barrel was then set on fire incinerating everything inside.

That people were executed in this fashion is no legend and the 'marking' or 'witch's stones' are there to remind us of the horrific ordeal of the accused.

One interesting, modern superstition was still practiced as late as the 1960s. On the night of Halloween if you happened to pass a witch's stone, you had to spit on it to avert bad luck! There are also reports of these stones apparently moving on their own and giving out strange, eerie lights.

Sawney Bean the cannibal?

Was Sawney Bean a real cannibal or just a story to frighten children?
Was Sawney Bean a real cannibal or just a story to frighten children? | Source

Sawney Bean's Cave - entered by a very narrow slit in the rock.

The location of the notorious cave of the Sawney Beane clan.
The location of the notorious cave of the Sawney Beane clan. | Source

An artistic impression of Sawney Bean

An artist's illustration of Alexander 'Sawney'  Beane.
An artist's illustration of Alexander 'Sawney' Beane. | Source

Myths and legends

Do you think that myths and legends are based on actual events?

See results

Sawney Bean - Scotland's Serial Cannibal?


Port Balcreuchan, Ayrshire.

Alexander'Sawney' Bean and his family are reported to have robbed, murdered and cannibalised about 1000 people over a period of twenty years. These atrocious events are believed to have taken place between the late 1300's to 1430 during the reign of King James I of Scotland.

The Bean family lived in a cave, which even today, is hard to locate and difficult to enter as the opening is a mere slit in the ancient rock.

Bean was originally from East Lothian but fled the area after teaming up with a local woman called 'Black Agnes Douglas' who was also reported to be a witch. Bean eventually married her and this was the beginnings of the Sawney Bean clan.

They committed a string of crimes in the south of Scotland before finally finding the cave at Bennane Head, near Ballantrae, Ayrshire. Sawney Bean and his wife found that the surrounding area was often used by lone travellers - making them a prime candidate for robbery.

Legend states that after only a short time of mugging and murder they added cannibalism to their list of crimes. Eating their victims, it’s claimed, started because Bean and his wife were starving. They had also decided on this method apparently as a way to get rid of the evidence of their criminal activities.

Over the years their clan grew. Most of the tales state that the numbers increased due to incest between family members. The stories also relate how a thousand people, over a twenty year period, were murdered and cannibalised.

In times when communications were poor no one would really notice travellers who went missing. These were violent times, life was cheap and it wasn't uncommon for people to simply disappear and never be seen again.

However, the Bean clan’s time finally came to an end when a robbery went wrong. Their last victim managed to fight off his attackers and escaped to alert the authorities.

An army - some legends state led by King James I himself - hunted the area. When they eventually found the cave and entered, they were met by the sickening sight of dismembered bodies and pickled remains.

The Bean clan were taken to Edinburgh. It is said that because the crimes were so horrific they were given no trial and were executed the following day. The men had their limbs cut off and left to bleed to death, the women were burned at the stake.

To date there is no hard evidence to say whether or not Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan did exist. There are other accounts of alleged cannibalism taking place in Scotland. The story of Christie Cleek for example, a butcher from Perth in the 1300's, was the leader of a band of robbers and murderers who would cook and eat their victims.

It may be that both these stories do originate from a single source perhaps earlier in time and names and locations changed to suit a particular audience. Nevertheless, the legend of Sawney Bean is one that continues today.

During historic tours in Edinburgh the shocking story of Sawney Bean’s Clan and their horrific crimes are still told to awestruck audiences today.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of Scotland’s myths and legends. If you have any of your own stories to share then let me know using the comments section.


© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell

Comments

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  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Ciel - well how cool is that! I'm from Fife myself and 1770 is a good distance to get back to! I love family history and looking at family trees, I'll need start on one for our family one day. Many thanks for the info!

  • Ciel Clark profile image

    Ciel Clark 

    6 years ago from USA

    I just got out the family tree--so far it's back to about 1770, in Fife, but some of the other branches just say Scotland..

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Ciel Clark, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such an interesting and lovely comment - thank you. I think there are a couple of legends about the thistle, but the 'Battle of Largs' one is by far the most popular and accepted.

    That's also interesting about your ancestors - do you know what areas of Scotland they came from?

  • Ciel Clark profile image

    Ciel Clark 

    6 years ago from USA

    I had never heard the reason behind the thistle! Most of my traceable ancestors are from Scotland, so I will share this link with my family genealogists. Great hub, up interesting and useful.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Kitty, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

    It's always a pleasure to read any of your articles and 'A call from the grave' sounds very interesting. I'll definitely have a read at that. See you soon!

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Kitty Fields 

    6 years ago from Summerland

    I lvoed this hub, Seeker. You know I'm a huge fan of yours and I love learning about stories of Scotland. How brilliant and beautiful this hub was. Quick question - can you take a look at my newest hub when you get a chance "A Call from the Grave". I really need some others' insight on this experience that I've had just this past week. Very creepy yet can't be coincidence. Let me know what you think! Thanks, and I voted up of course.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay - lovely as always to hear from you and get your take on things! I agree the Sawney Bean story is horrible. But I have to say I do think somewhere there has to be a grain of truth in the past somewhere. As you say, could there be a link to the butcher? In times past, especially during the winter months and if you were living rough, there would literally be no food to hand, so it's not inconceivable that cannabilism would take place. After all there are modern day accounts of cannabilism by people who had to in order to survive.

    Many thanks again for your visit Rosemay it's always appreciated and glad you enjoyed the hub.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Robwrite - I wouldn't dream of referring to you as Rob Roy!!LOL! Glasgow is a fabulous city - I know it has its hard reputation but doesn't every place? It really is a beautiful and fascinating place. Glasgow and Fife - where I come from - have always had quite a close relationship. We share the same holidays usually and there are man Glaswegians in Fife and vice versa.

    But many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    6 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    The myths and legends are fascinating, they all must have grown from some truth to begin with even if they may have been a little embelished along the way.

    The Sawney bean story is quite gruesome and I wonder if there is a link between this and the butcher.

    Scot is a fascinating place and I look forward to reding your next hub.

  • Robwrite profile image

    Rob 

    6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

    Very well done. I'm of Scots descent--my dad came over here from Glasgow in the 1950s--so I've always been very interested in Scots history, literature, facts, songs and stories. Thanks for the information,

    Rob (Not rob roy)

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi grandmapearl! Always lovely to hear from you and many thanks for the lovely comment!

    Yes indeed the blood shed is horrific and when you tally up the lives lost over the centuries this adds up to many thousands! No wonder Scotland is also one of the most haunted places on the planet!

  • grandmapearl profile image

    Connie Smith 

    6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

    Hi Seeker! Fascinating stuff. So much bloodshed, murder and mayhem in such a gorgeous country. Your pictures are beautiful and your myths and legends very engaging. Voted Up, Beautiful and Awesome!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Shawn May Scott - many thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. I have to admit that I have a passion for myths and legends as well and it seems with Scotland that the more that you dig, the more you discover! Many thanks again for your visit - it's really appreciated.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Gypsy - it's always great to hear from you and many thanks for your lovely comment - it's really appreciated! I think you would have a fun time in Scotland - even although the weather is never great - at least you can look at the scenery and enjoy the history! LOL! Thanks also for passing the hub on - many, many thanks!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Frank - always lovely to hear from you. Glad that you enjoyed the hub and the photographs and thank you for the lovely comment - it's appreciated!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello teaches12345, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub and the scenery.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Alastar - as always - lovely to hear from you!

    LOL! Yeah - the Vikings! I think because they were so close to Scotland, just being a few miles over the North Sea there was obviously many centuries of interaction between the countries, especially in the North and West. Not al lof it bloody either. There are some remarkable sites up in the Orkneys and Shetlands that are Viking in origin. So we did have much later interactions between us really because so many Vikings were settled in a few places but some of the Scots finally decided they wanted them out.

    Wow! That is intriguing about the rock cairn and folks spitting on it as well - although I have to admit having an intense dislike for spitting at any time, even if it is to ward of evil or bad luck. But that is really interesting about how legends/beliefs/superstitions have travelled.

    I think Bruce's story - or even Sir James Douglas's - is quite likely to be true in some form. Why not! It's the kind of simple demonstration that life/nature often gives to teach us the most important of lessons.

    As to the nasty Bean family - whatever the source of this legend, whether it was indeed this family or some other, I hope they did get their just rewards eventually.

    Many thanks again for your visit Alastar and glad that you enjoyed the hub - and here's hoping that one day you will make it to these shores!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi CMHypno - many thanks for stopping by! I sympathise with your sentiments! The reason I think that it's always the women is that silly, warped supposedly 'religious' men saw women as all evil and tempting. They were of course nothing of the kind and the reality was that it was their own ignorant and cruel minds that made up most of the charges.

    I agree as well with you - this world is teeming with mysteries, legends, mythologies and whatever else that are awesome! We would need many life times I think to get through them all.

  • Shawn May Scott profile image

    Shawn May Scott 

    6 years ago

    As a Scott by heritage and not birth I have always been deeply interested in the past of this truly strong nation. The myths and legends intrigue me and I enjoy reading them. Thank you.

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    6 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Voted up, awesome and interesting! Thanks for this great hub. Scotland sounds fascinating and as soon as I can I'm coming to take a look. Passing this on.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    6 years ago from Shelton

    wow.. a very informative and entertaing hub Seeker7.. and the visuals make it easy to follow up and interesting

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    6 years ago

    So much beauty in this land and lovely places to visit. Thanks for sharing the history and detailing the facts on royalty.

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 

    6 years ago from North Carolina

    How very cool learning about the Largs battle. I didn't realize Vikings were still attacking into the 13th century. The thistle's spines remind of the cackling geese of ancient Rome warning of the Celt attack. And how about MacBeth's witches; we have a historical rock cairn over here Seeker that everyone passing by spits on- well the men anyway. Guess some Scottish traditions carry over.Robert the Bruce's spider web inspiration sounds like it could have really happened to me. The Bean family- whew! Well, thoroughly enjoyed part one of Scottish myths and legends Seeker. Pics are great and the more I read of your Scottish hubs the more I want to come and visit the old homeland some day.

  • CMHypno profile image

    CMHypno 

    6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

    Why is it always the women who get burned at the stake? Fascinating insight into some of Scotland's old stories and legends Seeker7. One of the wonderful things about the world is that there is always so many interesting things to learn about, and you always find some really fascinating things to write about

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Nils Visser, many thanks for stopping by to read the hub and glad that you enjoyed it. I like to look for things that are not common knowledge and/or additional information to flesh out more of what's already been written. Hopefully I will have a second, similar hub before too long.

    Many thanks again for your visit.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    6 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Londonlady, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub! Many thanks also for the vote up - much appreciated.

  • Nils Visser profile image

    Nils Visser 

    6 years ago from Brighton UK

    I enjoyed reading this, a nice selection since a number of things were unknown and other more well-known elements contained new information. I'd like to read more of these.

  • Londonlady profile image

    Laura Writes 

    6 years ago

    Definitely some of the most gorgeous places on Earth. Great hub, voted up!

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