See all stories
10 Mar 2022

A place for natural heritage folklore

Written by Roddy Hamilton, ranger based at Crathes Castle Estate
A view of an old, moss- and lichen-covered oak tree growing in a species-rich woodland.
During Scotland’s themed Year of Stories, many National Trust for Scotland events will contain storytelling or elements that reflect that heritage. Here, our ranger in the North East region explores how folk tales could become a powerful tool in environmental education.

A few years back, there was a book published with a folk tale centred around an oak tree and a jay. I can remember memorising, but doing little justice to, the oak tree’s tale. I was at a campfire storytelling session with a group of students, and I couldn’t believe in myself as the storyteller. Maybe part of me wondered if folk tales haven’t already been superseded by Netflix and podcasts. I want to learn to feel comfortable with the telling of folk tales – this is something I hope to remedy this year in a workshop run by a professional storyteller.

Deep down, I want the oak’s story to affect me. I want it to be as simple and elegant as the one I remember about a farmer whose goose laid golden eggs. And because I’m an environmentalist, I want the oak’s story to provoke some call to action in me.

The best folk stories give us that instruction. I like to think that folk stories need to be ‘used’ and retold, to keep them alive as we do with languages.

“Folk tales are a record of historical culture and give us clues to our past as well as our present selves.”
Roddy Hamilton

Stories abound at the National Trust for Scotland. Telling the tales from Scotland’s past and sharing stories about our current work is a key part of our mission to make Scotland’s heritage accessible and enjoyed by all. Ghost stories, for instance, are a really significant (and memorable!) part of experiencing our built heritage places. Mention the Green Ladies of Crathes Castle or Castle Fraser, and a shiver runs down many people’s spines. Where do ghost stories come from? Well, they have their beginnings in the oral tradition. They were used to explain things that were inexplicable. Ghost stories embodied our ancestors’ darkest fears and expressed them in ways that were tangible within the culture of the time. Nowadays, ghost stories are mostly told for entertainment – we feel safe in our knowledge that a creaky floorboard is probably caused by a change in temperature ... unless we’ve evidence to the contrary!

Find out more about Scottish ghost stories at our places:

Scottish ghost stories – witches, murder and folklore (Part 1)

Scottish ghost stories – witches, murder and folklore (Part 2)

A photo of Crathes Castle taken at night. Superimposed is a white illustration of the ghost of a young woman, lifting her arms towards the full moon.
Ghost stories abound at National Trust for Scotland places.

Darkness is a tradition in many stories; often folk tales were cautionary tales, employed to illustrate the folly of transgressing into the ‘dark side’. Folk tales served a moral purpose – to show children the consequences of disobedience.

Folk tales were mostly an oral tradition, where the framework of the story stayed the same but the details changed. Later came printed stories that offered similar moral guidance. The Brothers Grimm wrote down the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel – classic tales of the fight between good and evil. Their message might be distilled to a parent’s warning: don’t talk to strangers / be careful who you trust.

In Scotland, kelpies (shape-shifting water spirits that normally take the form of a horse on land) were likely concocted to keep children away from dangerous waters. The legend tells of kelpies transforming into ponies to trick young children onto their backs, only to drag them into the nearby river. Although intangible, these folk tales are evidence of a rich vein of Scotland’s cultural heritage. They have survived as they’re complex enough to bear retelling again and again, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist of their respective eras.

Two very large metal sculptures of horse heads loom into the dusk sky. They are reflected almost perfectly in the still water in the foreground.
The magnificent sculptures of the Kelpies near Falkirk show how much folklore is still a part of Scottish culture | Image: Shutterstock/ALBAimagery

But how relevant are these folk tales today?

From the Ladybird books of my childhood, I remember The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Chicken Licken. Both are derived from European fables. Chicken Licken instilled panic in a succession of animal characters after an acorn fell on her head and she thought the sky was falling down. As a child, I just thought it was a good story. I didn’t realise this apocalyptic book was a cautionary tale about the dangers of catastrophising.

Social anthropologists and historians often study folk tales since they reflect, in an exaggerated way, social norms and desirable group behaviours. Indeed, folk tales don’t just have the power to shape our own characters; they can even influence the character of whole countries.

Robert the Bruce is perhaps most associated with winning the Battle of Bannockburn (he is also woven into the history of Crathes and Drum castles) but he is almost as famous for the tale of the spider. After losing early battles to the English army, Robert is said to have taken inspiration from a spider building its web in the cave where he was sheltering. He watched it spin its web multiple times, only for the intricate construction to be dashed with droplets of water from the cave roof. Of course, the stoic spider finally triumphed, as did Bruce in battle. ‘Try, try and try again’ is the saying that accompanies this folk tale, and somehow in its telling and retelling it has become part of the psychology of a nation, with determination and perseverance celebrated in achievements ranging from the invention of colour television to that Archie Gemmill goal in the 1978 World Cup.

A statue of Robert the Bruce on horseback faces the camera, with the Stirling hills and blue skies in the background.
Statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

And now I return to the farmer. Remember him? The one who killed the goose that laid the golden egg? In the folk tale, he believed the goose to be solid gold inside; it wasn’t, and by killing it he lost his chance to obtain a golden egg every day. This moral tale, which can be applied personally and societally, is centred round a theme that’s of increasing importance in our modern world: ­sustainability. Folk tales from indigenous North American culture and modern-day India provide similar moral instruction, where the lesson is often ‘Look after nature and nature will look after you’.

So what sort of folk tales do we want for the 21st century? How relevant is the story of the oak tree and jay, where the sentient oak is regarded as almost human? In environmental education we seem to have drawn away from anthropomorphising living things. But in the face of the current biodiversity crisis, maybe it’s time to start retelling some natural world folklore? It might provide a context for communicating the deep-seated desires of our culture to tackle the climate and biodiversity challenges. Stories of sustainability and conservation can help us create a more equitable society. And what better time to start than in Scotland’s Year of Stories.

The nature writing workshop will be held at Crathes Castle on Sunday 3 July 2022.
Book your ticket now