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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!

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.

The baby giant of Knockfarrel

Transcript

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 giant.


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...

Buying a wind

Transcript

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 tales.


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 out.


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 went.


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 brandy!'


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!

Giant steps in Ross-shire

Transcript

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 word?


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.

The Captain and the Mermaid

Transcript

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 amazing.


'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 fella.


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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