Scotland is rich in folklore tradition and it’s not something that is confined to books or academic study, but something that is alive in everyday language, habits, and customs, evidenced by the place names, stories and legends attached to the landscape. Folklore is to my mind, an active, vital force, an enduring presence, that lies deeply rooted in people’s imagination and beliefs. For some time now, I have been observing how often folklore features in our daily lives and conversations. Folklore helps us connect with our forebears, and if you know where to look, I think it is possible today to glimpse something of the way they perceived the world around them.
It is hard to imagine in our world of abundant food production, of communities linked by high-speed transport and the internet, what it must have been like long ago to live in isolated villages, in constant dread of the harvest failing, of famine and sickness. It is easier to imagine how our forebears would have been in awe of the beauty and mystery of the land and sea – a blue haze laid over the hills, dark, sullen mountain tarns, the caress of salty-sea spray on the skin, and the roar of the wind across the moors. Scottish folklore was borne from the precarity of life, from a need to placate the life-giving forces of nature, a way to understand the wild, enigmatic beauty of the land and sea and explain the ‘seen’ world. It was also borne from a need to understand the mystery of the world, to make sense of the unknown, by explaining the ‘unseen’ as belonging to another realm, the supernatural. Long ago people believed they lived on the borderlands between the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’, and folklore bridged the gap between these worlds. The word ‘lore,’ in folklore refers to the stories, knowledge and customs shared amongst the ordinary people of the times, ‘the folk’.
The unseen world was for our forebears a reality, a part of life, a force for good and bad, and a harbinger of future events. The unseen wasn’t simply the subject of stories, it was the essence of life. Each stretch of water would have been home to a kelpie, a shape-shifting aquatic spirit in the shape of a horse lying in wait to lure an unwary traveller. Witches roamed the skies clutching stalks of ragwort or tall bullrushes; selkies lazed on sandy beaches; shellycoats with skins of rattling seashells combed the seashore; mermaids turned somersaults in the sea; brownies hid in farmhouse pantries, and urisks, shy, solitary, grey-haired giants, roamed the mountains and remote glens.
In the past nothing could be taken for granted. The rivers and seas provided sustenance, but in bad weather they became hostile and life threatening. The spirits of the rivers, lochs and oceans were appeased by throwing the first catch of the day into the water, or with other gifts of food and drink. Witches went to sea in sieves, controlled the weather and were able to conjure up favourable winds for sailors just as easily as they could raise snowstorms and tempests. Nothing was as it seemed, shape-shifting witches could transform themselves into hares, cats, dogs, and black beetles.
This unseen world was unpredictable, sometimes the creatures who inhabited it were helpful, at other times they were vindictive and cruel. There are stories of farmers who cultivated the land beside fairy mounds being punished for this with failing crops or ailing cattle. People who showed kindness to the fairies were sometimes rewarded with a lifetime of plentiful food. Some fairy gifts were worthless, gold withered to dust, fiddles and pipes crumbled like puffballs into clouds of brown dust. But not always, the most famous gift of all, a Fairy Flag belonging to the Macleod Clan, is still on display at Dunvegan Castle in Skye. The story goes that a fairy woman was discovered in the castle wrapping a child in a silken banner, it might have been her intention to steal the child and leave a changeling in its place. The fairy woman fled the castle leaving the banner behind, for many years it brought luck to the clan and protected them in battle.
Protections and charms were often needed against this unseen world for instance, holly and honeysuckle wreaths were hung on byre doors to protect the cattle and horses. New-born babies were in constant danger of being snatched by fairies - iron objects and charms made from rowan twigs kept them away. It is common to see rowan trees in churchyards, beside abandoned crofts, in the gardens of older houses, and surprisingly also in the gardens of newly built homes. The rowan with its slender branches, smooth, silvery-grey bark, and dark green finger-like leaves has long been considered a protection against witches and fairies. When I moved into my house here in the North East of Scotland over twenty years ago, one of the first things I did was to plant a rowan tree in the garden, just in case.
There is scarcely a green knoll in Scotland, that doesn’t have a fairy name and a story attached to it. Many are famous like the Fairy Hills of Aberfoyle, the Fairy Glen in Skye, Calton Hill in Edinburgh and Schiehallion in the Grampians, whose name means the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians”. All these are places where people have encountered the unseen world, places where there is an ancient connection between folklore and the landscape. There are stories about people who lingered on a fairy knoll being bestowed with the gift of second sight. Other stories tell of fairies manipulating time, of fiddlers resting on a knoll on a Summer’s evening to awake the next morning and discover that a hundred years had passed in the span of one night. Like the ballad of Thomas of Ercildoun who didn’t return home for seven years after being transported to a fairy realm within the Eildon Hills by the Queen of the Fairies.
Many of the prehistoric stone circles found in Scotland are said to be full of life, there are stories of stones marching down to the loch-side at midnight on Hogmanay. Near Banchory-Devenick close to Aberdeen, a farmer once removed a monolith from a ring of stones to use as a hearthstone in his cottage. That night he heard strange noises and, in terror at first light he replaced the stone where he had found it. Other stories tell of stone circles being the remains of warring giants petrified to stone when the sun came out. The dancing feet of supernatural creatures on moonlit nights are said to create ephemeral impressions on the land known as fairy ‘rings’ or ‘greens.’ These take the form of circlets of bright green grass, rings of mushrooms in meadows and forest glades, and circles of scorched-looking earth visible during hot dry summers.
But what then of folklore’s presence in our lives today. I can only speak from my own experience, but two stories I’ve noted in recent years attest to the presence and persistence of some of these folk beliefs.
An oft heard phrase in the North East is ‘a furl of fairies ween,’ - a whirl of fairies’ wind. A phrase that describes the dust and straw raised by the wind like mini tornados in country lanes on a summer’s day. Raising the winds was a trick employed by the fairies to lift people or animals into the air and carry them to their fairy world. Throwing a shoe or bonnet at the swirling wind, and saying something like, ‘this shoe is yours, and that person belongs to me,’ is said to encourage the fairies to drop whatever it is they are carrying. Offering a gift to a supernatural creature, however small, was an effective way to break a spell.
Recently on our neighbourhood WhatsApp chat, a neighbour reported the disappearance of one of his hiking boots from his back doorstep, and a few days later, one of his daughter’s trainers went missing from the same step. We discussed the possibility of the shoes being taken by a person up to mischief, or by a dog, or badger, and as the deer come close, someone suggested they were the culprits. Someone else mentioned the thieving fairies. A few days later, the hiking boot was found in the hedge of the farm opposite my house, and later, the farmer found the trainer in his newly ploughed field. Were the shoes stolen or was it a sign of a lucky escape? Did someone throw the shoes to save a person or animal from the aerial clutches of the fairies?
In March 2020 before lockdown, I was waiting in Waverley Station in Edinburgh for a train on a seat between platforms ten and eleven. I was perched on the edge of the seat, coffee in one hand, head down, covered in crumbs, as I ate the last mouthful of an almond croissant. I became aware of someone at my side, an elderly man with white hair, lively grey eyes dressed in a suit and tie and a black overcoat.
‘Have you eaten that all your’sel and nae given the wee fairies a bite?’ he said.
Startled, and unsure how to reply I said I had indeed eaten it all. He looked up and down the platform, and said with a smile that I was safe, because the fairies rarely visited railway stations. The man’s daughter appeared, she chided him gently for talking about the fairies and explained he had an interest in folklore. We chatted about this for a while, then wished each other well, and they boarded the train for Helensburgh.
In the past being on the lookout for the dangers of this ‘unseen’ world was an art, it required a sense of readiness, watchfulness, and an engagement of all the senses. Is it possible to rekindle an awareness of how our forebears engaged with this unseen world? I believe it is, but first you need to know where and how to look.
I think it starts by finding a place that has a special atmosphere, a deserted beach perhaps, or an ancient woodland, a remote glen, or a desolate moor. A place that is secluded, tranquil, untouched by human hands, brimming with wildlife and plant life, or a place that is exhilarating and intimidating in equal measures, or ignites a sense of wonder.
Once you have found such a place, books on Scottish folklore talk about finding the unseen world by using all your senses either between the places or between the times. If you are on a deserted beach, between the places could mean the strip of wet sand between the sea and shoreline. Another example might be a crossroads on a moorland path, or at the edge of a mountain treeline. Now I think about it, my neighbour’s doorstep was the perfect the place for the disappearing shoes – a doorstep is between the inside and the outside of a house.
Between the times, might mean between the seasons, or between the end of one year and the start of a new year – for instance at Hogmanay. Or between dawn and daylight, or dusk and darkness, at times when the light sensitive cells in our eyes, the cones, and rods, respond and adapt to changes in the quality of the light. Fine adjustments in the retina between cones, which sense daylight, details and colour, and rods which are sensitive to changes from light to darkness, shapes, shadows, and movement; slippages of sight when we imagine all kinds of spectres . . .
I’m deep in my neighbour’s wood, sitting between the water and the land on a sandy bank at the edge of a pond, the air is heavy, damp, and the swampy water smells of decay. As the light fades the birch trees are no longer camouflaged against the grey clouds and they lose their silvery glow. The outlines of the trees darken against the blue twilight, the bullrushes sway and yellow water irises rustle and tremble in a strengthening of the wind . . .
The books suggest using your senses to be on the lookout for anything strange or unusual. You might see something move out of the corner of your eye, or smell something you have never noticed before like the scent of a flower. You might feel the gauzy touch of spider’s web on your face or hear a snapping twig as you walk along a forest path. Or you might taste something unusual or feel hungry after eating - a sign that the fairies have stolen the nourishment from your food.
. . . the light fades, the strong wind brushes the water into ripples with a soft, breathy, whinny and the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. Velvety black shapes loom amongst the irises . . might it be a kelpie or a monstrous water-bull? A splash rings out, and a splatter of pewter-coloured rings spreads out across the water. Is it a fish surfacing for air or the water-loving brownie, Puddlefoot, splashing in the shallows? The air quivers, a buzzing swish close to my face, a zig-zag flicker of iridescent blue, long, filmy, net-veined wings . . . a damselfly or an aerial spirit?
There was a time when folklore was central to people’s lives, every village had its stories, its fears, and its own ways of seeking to make sense of the seen and unseen worlds. Over time we have grown apart from many of the folk beliefs of our forebears, but I think in truth perhaps they are never far away.
Perhaps the question one might ask is why in our digital technological world do so many of these stories and beliefs persist today? Why do supernatural beings crop up in our conversations, why do people touch wood to avert bad luck, or push teaspoons through eggshells to prevent the witches using them as vessels to go to sea? Perhaps it is because, in truth, we are not so different from our forebears as our twenty-first century selves would like to think. We are still in awe of the mystery and majesty of the world, and while we understand more about the natural forces in the world – we can’t control them. Our fears remain, life is precarious, and we are still prey to the unexpected, as the Covid pandemic has shown. Another reason perhaps why folklore persists is because it belongs to all of us, it is our history, it talks to our hearts and to what it means to be human, and ultimately, I believe we all hold deep within us distant memories and echoes of the past.
J E Swanson has been putting words on paper and creating imaginary worlds since childhood. She has an MLitt in Writing Study and Practice from Dundee University and writes creative nonfiction, short stories and reviews of fiction and art for DURA. Her short stories have been published by the Scottish Book Trust, The Voyage Out Press and the Scottish Arts Trust.