In the final part of our Halloween special, we uncover how there’s a kernel of fact inside every unbelievable tale of Scottish folklore. Writer at Large Neil Mackay reports

SAWNEY Bean the cannibal? Just anti-Scots propaganda. The Loch Ness Monster? Underwater gasses released from a seismic fault. Giants and elves? The result of our ancestors trying to make sense of Standing Stones and ancient burial mounds. Selkies and kelpies? Echoes of ancient rites such as human sacrifice and animal worship.

Scotland is rich in myth. Each tale, however, has a grain of historical truth lying at its heart. We may think of such legends simply as supernatural stories invented by ancestors with overactive imaginations way back in the mists of time, but in fact these fables all have some basis in fact – although it’s often hard to uncover.

The same is true for any culture. Most myths across the world can be explained. There’s even an academic discipline for rationally interpreting legends – it’s called Euhemerism. This school of thought is so old that it goes as far back as the greatest myth-makers of all, the ancient Greeks.

Such studies were inspired by Euhemerus, a gifted thinker from the fourth century BC. He believed the Greek gods were merely ancient kings and queens who had become worshipped as deities over time. Euhemerus was certain that the real, mortal king who became known as Zeus was buried on Crete. He is seen as the first atheist in history.

Archaeologists in the early-20th century worked out that the Greek myth of the one-eyed giants called Cyclopes was inspired by the woolly mammoth. When ancient Greeks uncovered the remains of mammoths scattered across the Mediterranean, the skull would have been bewildering. It looked human, it was huge, and in the centre there seemed to be a single, giant eye socket. It was, of course, the cavity of the mammoth’s trunk. But the myth of the Cyclopes was born.

The dragon myth found across the world is down to our ancient ancestors uncovering fossilised dinosaurs and trying to make sense of their discoveries. Similarly, tales of the mythical Griffin originated along the route of the old Silk Road in Asia, where the remains of beaked dinosaurs and their eggs were found.

In the book The Lore Of Scotland, folklorist Sophia Kingshill says the nation’s myths helped our ancestors “explain the world” and take “control over their surroundings and circumstances”. In a world without science, the stories handed down to us as folklore were a very real attempt by our forebears to grapple with the mysteries of life.

Folklorists have been trying to decode Scottish myths for decades, to unravel what might lie behind them. How do our myths reflect our own past culture, and the thinking of our ancestors?

Sawney Bean

Sometimes myths reflect not how a society thinks of itself, however, but how others see that society. One of our most monstrous legends, the story of Sawney Bean the Scottish cannibal, reveals how our closest neighbour, England, saw us centuries ago. Studying the Sawney Bean myth also reveals just how recently some legends have been created, and then quickly accepted as fact.

The tale tells of a family led by Sawney Bean and his wife who take to the caves around Girvan sometime in the 1500s. The tribe turns to cannibalism, waylays local travellers, drags them into caves and eats them. Eventually, one traveller survives, and the king and his soldiers arrest the monsters in their lair, and execute the entire brood.

There’s a spot near Bennane Head in South Ayrshire called Sawney Bean’s Cave to this day – however, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the cannibal family ever existed. In fact, the first records of the tale appear in England in 1734, when tensions were high between Scotland and England following the Acts of Union.

Sawney Bean is first mentioned in a book called Lives And Actions Of The Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers Etc written, we think, by Daniel Defoe of Robinson

Crusoe fame. Sandy Hobbs, a Scottish academic, psychologist and folklorist who set up the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, says the name “Sawney” was once “a derogatory term in England for a Scotsman. One could therefore see the story as a piece of scaremongering anti-Scottish propaganda”.

There’s no mention of Sawney Bean in any Scottish sources, Hobbs points out, until 1843 – by which time the legend was an established part of folklore.

Loch Ness Monster

When it comes to Nessie it seems like science and religion may well have collided to produce one of the world’s greatest monster myths.

The first report of Nessie comes in the Life Of Saint Columba, written in the sixth century AD. It tells the story of the Irish monk who brought Christianity to Scotland. It can’t have been easy converting the Picts, but claims of supernatural powers always help. Columba was said to have defeated a Pictish wizard, and repelled a monstrous “water beast” at the northern end of Loch Ness.

Columba battling a monster from a river or loch would have been highly significant to the ancient Celtic mind. Rivers were among the most important deities in the Celtic religion. A prominent Celtic goddess in Britain and Ireland was Danu, the mother goddess. Danu is also the root of the name for the river Danube – showing the extent of Celtic faith across the continent.

Stories of Columba overpowering wizards and river monsters would have acted as propaganda at the time and accelerated his mission to convert Scotland – but there might also be a grain of truth somewhere too. Italian scientist Luigi Piccardi investigated possible geological explanations behind myths. He was interested in the fact that the Columba legend says the monster appeared “cum ingenti fremitu” or “with loud roaring”. Loch Ness sits on the Great Glen Fault and it’s thought what Columba claimed to have seen was a mini-underwater earthquake, or the release of gas.

Giants and fairy folk

The landscape around Scotland is filled with Standing Stones, burial mounds and ancient hill forts. To a Scot in the Middle Ages, such sights would be almost impossible to explain. What were they? Who had built them? Perhaps, our ancestors theorised, they were the work of giants or the entrance to Fairyland. In the 12th century, the Normans thought Stonehenge was built by giants.

There’s been speculation that the word “Pict” might be the source of the word “Pixie”. This could be the ultimate source for “Puck” – the fairy made famous by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Strange Pictish carvings are found on stones across Scotland. It’s thought our ancestors interpreted these carvings as the handiwork of fairies.

If we had no understanding of Neolithic life or the Bronze or Iron Age, such ideas would give meaning to the unexplainable.

One of the most famous examples of the Stone Age-inspiring myths comes in the shape of “Elf Shot”. When farmers in the medieval period were ploughing their land they would often uncover Neolithic arrow heads. Of course, no-one knew of the Stone Age back then, so no-one could understand what these strange stone arrows were – unless, of course, they were weapons used by fairies.

During one battle in 1598 at Loch Gruinart, there were claims that little people – an eighth the size of humans – helped the winning side. The legend is thought to be down to elf shot found in the area.

Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides is a perfect example of the landscape-affecting myth. It’s an incredible and imposing geological feature – and to the minds of our ancestors it could easily be seen as the home of some huge giant. In Irish mythology, Fingal is the warrior giant Fionn MacCumhaill – or Finn MacCool. Like many ancient mythic figures, it’s thought he was based on a great king or warlord who became a god-like figure long after his death.

Legend has it that Fingal erected the standing stones at Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran. Some of these spectacular stones stand nearly five metres high. Without an understanding of the past and of science, how else could our ancestors have interpreted the stones? They had to be the work of giant hands.

Fingal is supposed to have died in Scotland – maybe in Glen Dochart. The fact that an Irish myth has such strong Scottish connections points to the deep cultural links between Ireland and Scotland going back millennia. The ancient kingdom of Dal Riata, founded in the fifth century, spread from the north of Ireland across the west coast of Scotland. The prevalence of Irish myths in Scotland is a cultural reminder of our shared history.

The Cailleach was a female giant also inspired by the Scottish landscape. The island of Ailsa Craig is supposed to be a pebble which fell from her apron. Huge stones in the Forest of Mar in Aberdeenshire were said to be the remains of her home.

Rocks at the Falls of Connel are stepping stones she used to cross Loch Etive. There were reports of sightings of the Cailleach well into the Victorian era and she was last seen around 1880 near Lochaber.

In Scotland, there’s also a long tradition of “Brownie” stories – of elf-like creatures who come into homes at night and perform good deeds, such as mending clothes or sweeping floors. Similar stories exist throughout Europe – most famously in the tale The Elves And The Shoemaker where little people help a cobbler with his work at night. It’s believed these stories may be a hangover from the time when most of the continent was ruled by the Roman Empire. Romans believed in “Lares” – household spirits which looked after every family, and often helped out in times of need.

In Shetland and Orkney, stories of the little people reflect the region’s ancient Viking past. On the islands, little people are known as “trows” – a derivation of the Scandinavian “troll”. These creatures lived in hillocks or cairns. One such place is the Trowie Knowe, a chambered tomb in Shetland.

Sometimes, tales of the little people were a way of explaining the most painful of events. If a perfectly healthy baby dies today, we realise it is cot death. A millennium ago, such a tragedy would be impossible to understand. However, parents could find some explanation in the malevolent actions of fairies who came into homes, stole human babies and left dead fairies in their place – so-called changelings.

Kelpies and selkies

Many myths across the world began as stories told to children by their parents to scare them and keep them safe. Think of the bogeyman stories of the 20th century. Some of these tales have morphed over recent decades, and taken on the shape of myths, such as the online Slenderman legend. Slenderman was taken so seriously by some children in America in 2014 that the story led to violence.

The kelpie may well be the original Scottish bogeyman. It’s also a myth that could only be created in a country dominated by water. Scotland’s rugged and sprawling coastline and myriad lochs and rivers made this a dangerous place to live in ancient times. Unlike many other parts of Europe, if you lived in Scotland in the Stone Age or Bronze Age you were going to have to travel by boat a lot.

The kelpie was a terrifying horse-like beast which lived in water and would drag you to your death. One of the most famous kelpie stories sees seven little girls and one boy playing in Glen Keltney. The little girls see a horse in the loch and climb on to its back. The boy refuses. The girls drown. The boy lives. The moral of the story, children, is do what your parents tell you and stay away from water.

The kelpie myth is also an echo of the ancient Celtic practice of making sacrifices to appease powerful water gods who lived in rivers. In some cases the sacrificial victim would be a horse. To make more significant offerings to the gods, humans would be sacrificed, even children.

Like kelpies, selkies also played a role in reminding people to be respectfully fearful of water, but these mermaid-like creatures, half-human half-seal, say more about ancient economics and religion. Along the Scottish coastline, and across the islands, the seal was a vital resource for our ancestors. It provided food and clothing. Humans have hunted them since the Stone Age. Neolithic people identified closely with the creatures they hunted, and even worshipped them. Their shamans, or priests, would “become” the deer or seal during magical ceremonies to help in the hunt. Once killed the animal would be revered because of the importance of its sacrifice to the tribe.

In the 1700s, a North Uist poet, John MacCodrum, claimed he was a selkie descendant. In the sea, selkies take the shape of seals, on land they take off their skins and assume human form. However, if they lose their skin they have to remain human. The North Uist legend tells of a local man who fell in love with a selkie and stole her sealskin to keep her on land. The couple had children but one day the selkie found her skin and returned to the sea.

Their descendants were known as “the MacCodrums of the Seals”. In the 20th century on North Uist there were still people who claimed a lineage back to selkies.

On Orkney, there were stories of people descended from selkies being born with webbed hands. Perhaps that myth was inspired by the birth of a disabled child. After all, our ancient ancestors found source material for the legends they handed down to us wherever they looked.