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28 Feb 2022

Fireside tales: Scottish folklore for children

Storyteller and artist Lizzie McDougall
2022 is Scotland’s Year of Stories! Hear from children’s storyteller Lizzie McDougall as she brings to life four of folklorist Hugh Miller’s Scottish tales, featuring giants, witches and mermaids!

1. Meet storyteller Lizzie McDougall

Storyteller and artist Lizzie McDougall is at Hugh Miller’s Birthplace in Cromarty, bringing to life some of the stories told by Hugh Miller in his book Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, which brought together local folktales from around Cromarty and the Moray Firth.

With the aid of the story quilt, children (and adults!) can journey back in time to the days of the giants, mermaids, and witches that could be found in this coastal corner of Scotland.

1. The baby giant of Knockfarrel


Wow! Great to be here in Hugh Miller's cottage, in Hugh Miller's
grandma's chair, beside Hugh Miller's fire – with stories. Yes, and I've
got a story for you.

I'm a storyteller and artist, and I love stories. I love stories that
make pictures in my mind, and then I love to draw them. So I've got a
story and maybe you'd like to do some drawings of this story – I'd love
to see them if you do.

My name is Lizzie, Lizzie McDougall, and I'm an artist and
storyteller, and this is the story I've got for you today. It's about a

Now you see, the Highlands was the home of giants. There were
basically three ages of giants. In the first age of giants, the giants
were ginormous! They were the big giants who made all the land.

The next age of giants, they were pretty jolly big – but they weren't very bright, and they were sometimes a bit scary.

And then there was the third age of giants. Now that's the giants I'm talking about.

You see, these are the giants that Hugh Miller talked about: the giants that lived on the top of Knockfarrel.

Now you see if you go up the Cromarty Firth, right up, right up to
where Dingwall is, you'll see Knockfarrel, and that's where the giants
lived. Finn McCool and his pals lived up there and there's lots of
stories, lots of stories! Some of which that you wrote down, and some
that just people tell. So I'm going to tell you the story, of a day when
Finn McCool – well he got a bit of a fright.

You see, he could hear the big giant, an old giant from the second
age of giants, was coming over the hill, going: 'I hear there's some
little giants living in Knockfarrel. I think I'm going to come and
squash them!' And he was coming over the hill quite slowly, because
those kind of giants go quite slowly.

And Finn McCool was living on top of Knockfarrel at that time, with
his wife, and they were worried: 'What are we going to do because we
might get squashed by the big giant?'

But the wife, Finn McCool's wife, had a clever idea. She said: 'Now
listen Finn. I'm going to dress you up as a baby, and we're going to
pretend that you're our baby – that you're Finn McCool's baby, and that
you're not at home so when the giant comes, the big giant, I will tell
him that you're away out and that you are his baby.'

Hmm, thought Finn McCool, yes it'll work!

So listen, here you are, now she used to wear these lovely white
bonnets with frilly bits around the side, and so she got her lovely
white bonnet and she put the white bonnet on Finn McCool's head.

And he was like: I'm not sure about this at all.' But she said: 'no no darling, you look wonderful!'

So he had this white bonnet on, and then she got a lovely white
blanket and she wrapped him all up in it, and then she thought, Hmm I
think there's something missing...

'Oh I know what, I think you need a nappy.' Finn said: 'I'm not wearing a nappy! I'm a grown man!'

'No no, you'll need a nappy,' she said, so she got a white towel and
she folded it up like the old-fashioned nappies, and she made him take
off his trousers and put on this nappy.

There he was wearing a nappy and the lovely socks that she'd knitted
him – lovely stripy socks. And there he was, and she said: 'Now we can
just put you in the log basket, and we can pretend you're a baby – but
don't laugh.'

And sure enough, over the hill came the big, big giant. He said: 'Where's Finn McCool? I want to challenge him to a duel.'

And the wife, Finn McCool's wife said: 'Oh he's away, he's away
hunting, he's not here. But his baby is, do you want to meet his baby?'

And the giant said: 'Yes, I'll meet his baby.'

And he looked in the log basket and there was Finn McCool, with his
white bonnet and his white shawl, and his white towelling nappy, and his
little stripy socks, sitting there grumbling: 'I don't really like
sitting here and I'm not really pleased.'

But the big giant went: 'Oh look at the baby, oh coochie-coochie-coo!'

He went coochie-coochie-coo to Finn McCool's mouth [wobbles lip with a
finger while making a noise], like sometimes they do to babies.

Then Finn McCool went 'ah' and he bit the giant's finger!

And the giant went: 'Ow! My finger, my finger! Oh!' And he ran away,
he ran away down the hill going: 'If that's Finn McCool's baby, I don't
think I want to meet Finn McCool!'

And off he ran and ran away, leaving Finn McCool and his wife laughing and laughing.

Well what a silly story that was, that was one of the silly stories. I
don't think that's actually a story that Hugh Miller wrote down, but I
think it's a story that lots of people told, about when Finn McCool was
dressed up as a baby.

But there's other stories, there's other stories of Finn McCool when
Finn McCool lived on top of Knockfarrel. Maybe we'll have one another
time. But I've got lots of stories, and I hope you'll join me for
another story, another time.

One day the giants that live on the top of Knockfarrel come down the hill to the village, to challenge Finn McCool to a duel! His wife decides that all they need is a clever plan, and they can hide Finn in plain sight...

2. Buying a wind


It's so lovely to be here – to be here in Hugh Miller's grandma's
chair, in Hugh Miller's cottage, beside the fire for some fireside

Now I'm Lizzie, Lizzie McDougall, and I'm an artist and storyteller,
and I've got a story for you today – a story that Hugh Miller heard
right here in this cottage. You see of an evening, especially in the
autumn and winter, the children would come cosy-in round the fire and
hope to get a story, and this is one of the stories he heard right here
in this kitchen. And it's a story that I have been inspired by to make
these pictures that are on the quilt.

You see back in those old days, back 200 years ago, of an evening he
would light a candle, and cosy in for a story. Everybody would leave a
light in the window so that people out at sea could see where they were
and to feel that encouragement, of seeing the lights – the lights from
home! – and they would remember what it would be like to be home and
cosy beside the fire and hearing stories. So this is one of the stories
that Hugh heard here in this kitchen. It's about some fishermen.

You see there would be lots of fishermen here in Cromarty, going
looking for the herring – hunting for the bonny shoals of herring, they
would go up and down the coast.

Now there was a boat, a wee boat that set off from here and they
didn't have far to go when they found the herring! Just out through the
Sutors and up and around the top of Tarbat Ness, and into the Dornoch
Firth they went. Oh and the fishing was amazing – so many fish!

Oh they just kept catching these beautiful silver fishes – the silver darlings they were called – a great treasure of fishes.

They caught their fishes and they filled their barrels – they filled
their barrels with the fish and the salt, and they filled them all up,
and then they wanted to head home.

But, oh no! They couldn't get home because of the wind.

You see the wind was blowing the wrong way, it was blowing right into
the Dornoch Firth, right into their face and they just couldn't get

What were they to do? They tried – they tried going over the waves to
get out, but no the wind kept blowing, blasting them back in again. Oh
dear, oh dear! They even tried to change the wind by whistling up a
wind. Yes, you see the thought was that if you whistled the wind would
change and you're not supposed to do that when you're on a boat, but
they tried whistling.

Can you whistle? [makes whistling noises]

Well they were all on their boat and they were all whistling away
[makes whistling noises] – whistling and whistling to try and change the
wind. But it didn't work. 'No, what are we to do, what are we to do?'

And then someone said: 'I think maybe the only thing to do is to go and buy a wind.'

'Buy a wind? What, you mean from... Stine Bheag?' 'Yes, Stine Bheag.'

Stine Bheag was a... witch [sound of bells] and she lived not far
from Tarbat Ness. She lived in the little old cottage, and she was a wee
bit scary, but she was an OK woman really.

And so they went round to Stine Bheag's house and they were a bit
nervous, they were a bit nervous, but they pushed the first one of them
forward and said: 'Right you're gonna ask – are you gonna? – No, no I'm
not going, you go, you go!' Anyway, the bravest one went and knocked on
the door.

And Stine Bheag came to the door and said: 'And what is it you're wanting?'

'Well Stine, we're – we're wondering if we could buy a wind to get us back to Cromarty.'

She said: 'I thought you might want that. Well now, what have you got for me?'

'Well we brought you a barrel of of fishes.' 'That'll be grand,' she
said. 'I'll see what I can do for you, but I think you might have some
brandy – I think you might have some fine French brandy. I would like
some fine French brandy too.'

'OK yes we'll get you some brandy,' they said.

'Right, and I'll get you some special magical herbs,' and so off she
went, and she gathered all sorts of strange things including some
seaweed, and some twigs, and all sorts – and she made it into a lovely
bunch and she bound it together with some seaweed, and she said:

'Right there you go, now you go and tie that onto the mast of your
boat and you'll get a grand wind to get yourself back to Cromarty.' So
they did, they took it from her and off they went, and they went and
they got on their boat, and they tied it onto the mast... and off they

But they'd forgotten something hadn't they. Do you remember what they forgot? They forgot to give her the brandy.

And so off they went in their boat, and first of all they had a nice
wind – a nice wind that took them out, out of the Dornoch Firth, and
they were just going around the point of Tarbat Ness when... suddenly a
great black cloud came, and oh! the sea came whirling and hurling up and
there were boats going up and down – oh dear, oh dear – when this black
cloud came over them, and out of the black cloud came two dark black
crows and the crows came down and said: 'Give us a brandy! Give us a

Of course, they've forgotten to give her a brandy – but luckily they
found some brandy on the boat and they handed it to the crows, and the
crows went and took it back to Stine Bheag who was on the coast,
waiting, and the winds dropped and turned back into a lovely wind that
just carried on taking them round to Cromarty.

Now they were almost in Cromarty when they thought, 'You know what, I
don't think that people in Cromarty would be very pleased if they'd
seen that we'd bought a wind from Stine Bheag, and they'll see it if
they see that bunch tied to the mast. Oh she'll never know, we'll just
take it off and chuck it overboard.'

And they did. Can you guess what happened?

The wind changed – oh no! – the wind changed, and they went hurling
and burling and whirling all the way back, all the way back to the
shore, where Stine Bheag was laughing: 'You didn't trust me, did you?
You! – You took the bunch of special magic off your mast, didn't you!
You didn't show any respect for my special magic!'

And they said: 'We're very sorry – we're very sorry Stine Bheag,' and
she said: 'Well you'll be wanting to buy another wind?' 'Yes indeed,
yes indeed,' they said. 'Well I want two bottles of brandy this time.'
Well they only had two left, but they were happy to give them to her.

So they gave her the two bottles of brandy, and she gave them another
bunch of herbs and seaweeds and all kinds of sticks of strange things,
which she'd bound together with the seaweed, and they took it and said
thank you, and they tied it to the mast, and made the journey safely all
the way back to Cromarty, and they didn't dare take that bunch of
special magical herbs and seaweeds off their mast, and they arrived in
Cromarty with it still on.

And that's how come we know the story – everybody in Cromarty knew
the story, because Stine Bheag had given them the special magic, and
that is how we know about Stine Bheag.

And we know the story because Hugh Miller heard that story, and when
he was grown up he wrote it down – he wrote it down in one of his books,
it's called Scenes and Legends, and that's how we know that story.

I hope you liked that story – I've got some other stories from the
sea, and I've got other stories about giants and maybe even some fairies
– lots of lovely stories! I hope you enjoyed that story and I hope you
come and listen to another story!

A fishing boat journeys up the coast looking for herring to catch. But when they try and get home the wind is blowing the wrong way! What are they to do? Maybe they should buy a wind from Stine Bheag... a witch!

4. Giant steps in Ross-shire


Well it's great to be here in Hugh Miller's cottage, beside the fire
for another fireside tale. Hugh and his friends would love to gather in
around the fire, especially on a cold and windy night, and they would
cosy in round the fire and see if grandma would have a story for them.

Well I've got a story for you – I've got one of the stories that Hugh
listened to right here in his cottage. It's about the giants – yes,
there were giants living right here, near Cromarty.

Now you'll maybe have heard about them. You've heard of the Sutors,
the Sutors at Cromarty: two hills on either side of the Firth, and
they're called the Sutors because that's where the giant cobblers lived,
and sutor is the old word for a cobbler, or somebody who makes shoes,
makes boots.

Now the cobblers who lived on top of the Sutors only had one hammer,
so there was a giant cobbler living on one Sutor on one side of the
Firth, and there was another giant cobbler living on the other side of
the Firth, and they both made boots – they made boots for giants, but!
They only had one hammer!

So they'd be – bang bang bang bang bang – making all the boots, and
then when they'd finish, they'd go: 'ARE YOU FINISHED WITH THAT HAMMER
YET?' and he would throw the hammer across to this giant on the other
side, and he'd catch it and then he would go – bang bang bang bang bang
bang – making the boots.

And that's why these two hills got called the Sutors, because the the
giants lived on top of them, making the boots – the boots for giants.
You see there were many giants up here in the Highlands of Scotland, and
I've got now a wee story for you, I've got a wee story about one of the
special giants who helped make Ross-shire.

Yes – see there were three ages of giants, and in the first age of giants they made the land.

Now up in Caithness in Sutherland they had these great big men
giants, and what they did like to do was just hurl and burl and throw
the rocks about to make Caithness and Sutherland.

But in Ross-shire, where Cromarty is, where we live, they had a lady
giant, and the lady giant – there she is, the lady giant – she liked to
take her time and make everything really beautiful.

You see now she had a creel upon her back – a creel is a basket that
you put on your back, and it was a magic creel. She would take it off
her back, and set it down, and say the magic word. You know the magic

You know that magic word when you want something, and you smile and
you say: 'Please?' That one! That magic word, that's right, that one.

She'd say, 'Please?', and when she would take the basket off, and put it on the ground, and say the magic word – [gasps!]

Everything would come out: all the earth, and rocks, and then all the trees.

First their would be the birch tree, and then the rowan, and the
holly, and the oak, and the pine, and all the trees – and she would set
them, and she'd make beautiful little places in Ross-shire. Little nooks
and crannies where the moss grows green, and the pine trees, the pine
trees laugh green laughter.

She made it all so beautiful and she had a lovely time, and it was a
beautiful sunny day and she'd spent hours and hours making all
Ross-shire so beautiful.

But she was quite tired, and she sat down... and she forgot to say
the other word. You know when somebody gives you something, you say...?
That's right: thank you.

And she'd forgotten to say thank you. And you know what, her creel kept on making all the stuff.

So there was earth pouring and pouring and pouring out of the creel
while she slept. And as she slept the creel was just making and making
and making and making, more and more and more, and she was getting
higher and higher up – and then she woke up.

'Oh my goodness!', 'oh!' she realized what had happened.

So she said the other word, she said, 'Thank you' to the creel, and it stopped.

And it stopped right then. Wow – she's really on a big mountain now.

But you know what, if she'd stayed asleep for a little bit longer it
might be the highest mountain in Scotland – which of course is Ben Nevis
– but it wasn't. It was the second highest: Ben Wyvis.

And there you are, that's the story of how Ben Wyvis was made, and
the lady giant who made Ross-shire so beautiful, and made it all so
lovely that all the animals could find cosy places to live – in amongst
all the beautiful trees and all the beautiful nature of Ross-shire.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that story. And I hope, I hope, you will
come and join me for another story another time. And thank you so much –
thank you so much for listening.

Find out why two giants used to throw a hammer across the sea to each other, and discover how the second highest mountain in Scotland was created by a giant who fell asleep with a magic basket.

5. The Captain and the Mermaid


It's so nice to be here in Cromarty, in Hugh Miller's cottage. Oh,
just wonderful. So – I'm Lizzie, Lizzie McDougall, a storyteller and
artist, and I'm so happy to be here in Hugh Miller's cottage with my
story quilts. I brought my quilts which are illustrated with lots and
lots of stories – stories I've gathered all around the Highlands,
particularly around the Moray Firth.

And I visited lots of places including Cromarty, and quite a lot of
people in Cromarty took part in helping to make this picture here, so I
think I should tell that story.

Well, it's a story that Hugh Miller shared, a story that he knew – a story back in the times when Cromarty was full of boats.

There were all kinds of boats here in Cromarty. There were lots of
fishing boats but there was also tall ships – tall ships that would sail
across the ocean wide. Now, one of these ships belonged to a captain,
Captain Reed. Now Captain Reed grew up in Cromarty, and just like you,
spent a lot of time down at the harbour with all the boats, and when he
was a boy, he was lucky to get a job on a beautiful sailing ship, and he
went sailing off, back and forth around the world.

And as he grew he got promoted until, at last, he was a captain. He was a captain of a fine ship.

Now you'd think he'd be a happy man – but no. Captain Reed, that was
his name, was not a happy man. You see the thing was, he was in love. He
was in love with the fair Helen.

But fair Helen, fair Helen – well she lived in a bubble. I mean she
lived in Cromarty, but in a sort of bubble of happiness, and in her
bubble of happiness she had her dream husband.

She dreamed up her imaginary perfect husband. He had lovely long
eyelashes, gorgeous cheekbones, a strong jaw. He was strong and
handsome, and witty and clever and fun – and just too good to be true.

But there he was, her dream husband, so she never noticed poor
Captain Reed, who was an awful nice chap, but didn't have particularly
long eyelashes or fine cheekbones.

And he would bow and say 'good morning', and she would just go 'hello'.

Poor Captain Reed.

Well, it was about time for him to go off on another voyage, and he
thought: It'd be so nice to see her before I go. And it was going to be
May Day. Now on the 1st of May, all the people would go up the hill, up
the Sutors, to wash their face in the morning dew.

Now if you wash your face in the morning dew you get young and
beautiful, or you stay young and beautiful – I forgot. But anyway, good
tip: wash your face in the morning dew on May Day.

Anyway Captain Reed was going to go up the hill because he hoped he
would meet fair Helen and all her friends, and he was walking along the
shore on the bay, when he saw something sparkly on the rock...

and when he looked closer he realized it was – the mermaid!

Well he knew – everybody knew – about the mermaid. You see, if you
could catch the mermaid, she would give you wishes three. Only problem
was, she'd also try and drown you!

So you had to be very careful, and Captain Reed thought, 'I'm going
to give it a go', and he went into the water and he went round the back
of the rock and he grabbed a hold of her and he held on tight, and she
of course tried to drown him. She dragged him down into the water, down
in amongst all the seaweed.

[Water noises] Blub blub blub blub blub blub blub

But up he came, gasping for breath, and still holding on to her. So
she said: 'Wishes three.' He was going to get the wishes! She said:
'What's your first wish?'

This first wish, he wished that nobody would be drowned – he didn't like that at all!

'And second wish?' And his second wish is that he would get lots of gold when he was on his travels.

'And your third wish?' 'For my third wish,' said Captain Reed, 'I wish, I wish that fair Helen would wish to be my bride!'

'Granted,' said the mermaid, and with that he let her go and off the
mermaid swam, swam into the beautiful rising dawn. And Captain Reed felt

'She granted my wishes! Fair Helen, fair Helen will agree to be my bride!' And off he went up the hill.

Now you know, he was looking a bit daft actually. He was soaking wet,
he was covered in mud and grit, and there were crabs crawling out of
his pocket, and his hair was soaking wet with bits of seaweed in.

But no, he didn't mind, and when the girls came down the road, he
smiled – and when he smiled, Helen saw him and noticed what a handsome
fella he really was, because when he was smiling he was a good-looking

And he bowed, and she curtsied, and they started talking, and
everybody went walking back down the hill together, and all Helen's
friends were going, 'Oh wouldn't it be a nice match?' 'Oh it'd be such a
good match!' And sure enough, eventually she agreed to be his bride.

And they got married – and it's true, they really did. Captain Reed
and fair Helen were real people, and, what's more, they built a house
just along the coast, where you can look over and see the rock where the
mermaid was.

So, who knows? Maybe that mermaid is still around – but Captain Reed and fair Helen were real people.

Now, there are other stories of mermaids, and maybe you'll hear them
from someone else or maybe you'll come and join me for another story. I
hope you will.

I hope you enjoyed that story today. Bye bye

Captain Reed is in love with the fair Helen, but Helen doesn’t notice him and this makes him very unhappy. So one morning he comes up with a plan: if he can just catch a mermaid, he’ll have three wishes granted. But only if he survives!

Build your own fishing fleet mobile!

Inspired by the stories of Cromarty and its boats? Learn how to craft your very own origami fish and fishing boats, and make them into a beautiful mobile to hang in your window.

Family crafts: make a Cromarty fishing fleet mobile

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