Scottish Myths & Legends
What are myths and legends?
"No one in Scotland can escape from the past.
It is everywhere, haunting like a ghost."
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
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?
A Witch's Stone, Forres, Scotland.
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?
Sawney Bean's Cave - entered by a very narrow slit in the rock.
An artistic impression of Sawney Bean
Myths and legends
Do you think that myths and legends are based on actual events?
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