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31 Jan 2022

Scottish storytelling traditions

Written by Rheanna-Marie Hall
Books on shelves in Brodie Castle library
Brodie Castle library
Scotland is full of legendary tales and mythological stories, as well as many talented folklorists, poets and writers who have collected them over the centuries. With its fairytale landscapes, lochs, castles, and battlefields, it’s easy to understand why Scotland has such a rich history of folklore.

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Scottish storytellers

Robert Burns

Famed the world over for his poetry and songs, Burns is Scotland’s National Bard and the most well-known Scottish storyteller. Growing up in the 18th century, he heard many folktales and stories of the supernatural when he was a boy. Even though he declared himself sceptical of such things, as an adult Burns did confess that the tales still had a strong effect on his imagination late at night.

Some of his most popular works show the influence of such stories, including ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, a poem about a farmer who drinks too much one night and sees witches, warlocks and even the Devil, as he desperately rides for home past the haunted Alloway Kirk in Ayr (a ruined churchyard very close to Robert Burns’s birthplace).

Read ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ by Robert Burns

J M Barrie

Playwright and novelist, James Matthew Barrie was born in 1860 in the small town of Kirriemuir in Angus. He is best-known as the creator of beloved children’s character Peter Pan. The weaver’s cottage where he was born and spent his early childhood includes a washhouse in the yard – said to be the inspiration for the Wendy house.

As a young boy his mother would entertain him with tales of the town she grew up in. He would later turn these into short traditional stories of Scotland (which would also inspire his first novels) and submit them to newspapers, establishing him as a writer.

Margaret Fay Shaw

Pittsburgh-born folklorist, photographer and musician Margaret Fay Shaw lived on the Isle of Canna for over 60 years. She moved to the Hebrides in 1929, living on South Uist where her collections, both written and photographic, began: she published a book entitled Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist filled with tales from the community.

In 1938 she moved to Canna with her husband, the Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell. Together they amassed and researched a huge collection of Gaelic and Celtic songs, stories, and poetry, creating an incredible archive of Scottish storytelling and culture. The couple donated the island to the Trust, and the archives at Canna House are still being explored, studied and digitised today.

Watch a short clip from Solas: a film celebrating Margaret Fay Shaw

Hugh Miller

Born in Cromarty, Hugh Miller became an important collector of folklore and a profuse writer of stories, books and newspaper articles. One of his books, entitled Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, brought together local folktales from around Cromarty and the Moray Firth.

As well as a folklorist, Hugh Miller was also a geologist, fossil hunter and writer.

Scotland’s most legendary stories

Fingal’s Cave

This special sea cave can be found on the uninhabited island of Staffa. With its structure of hexagonal basalt columns, it can be hard to believe that this is an entirely natural structure, and not a man-made wonder. In fact the original legend of Fingal’s Cave is that it was one end of a bridge connecting Scotland to Northern Ireland – the other end of course being the Giant’s Causeway – which was built by a giant so that he could fight his rival across the sea.

The twist in the tale is that, geologically, the legend is true! The same ancient lava flow (not a giant, sadly) created both Fingal’s Cave in Scotland and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.

Discover Fingal’s Cave on Staffa

Fingal's Cave on Staffa, seen from the sea. White breakers crash against the rock beside the cave entrance. The basalt columns can also be seen either side of the entrance.
Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, as seen from the water

Robert the Bruce and the spider

According to legend, in 1306 during his long campaign against the English Robert the Bruce suffered a heavy string of defeats. His army was beaten in a series of battles, and his wife and daughter taken prisoner. The King of Scots is said to have fled to an island off the West Coast of Scotland (some believe the true location to be the Isle of Arran), where he hid in a cave. While there, he observed a spider spinning a web. It tried and failed repeatedly, until after numerous unsuccessful attempts it finally achieved its aim. This demonstration of spirit in the face of defeat is said to have inspired Robert the Bruce to his future victories, including Scotland’s decisive triumph against the English forces at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn, National Trust for Scotland

Ghost piper of Culzean Castle

There are countless numbers of Scottish ghost stories, but a recurring figure in traditional tales is that of the ghost piper. Ghost pipers in Scottish folklore are said to still be playing at the place of their death or disappearance. Haunting melodies are heard at locations across the country, including the music of the ghost piper of Clanyard Bay in Galloway, the ghost piper boy of Edinburgh Castle, and the ghost piper of Duntrune Castle in Argyll.

Culzean Castle in Ayrshire also has its fair share of spectral inhabitants, one of which is a piper who lost his way in the caves below the castle. Sent in to prove to locals that the caves weren't haunted, he played his bagpipes as he journeyed through the tunnels, accompanied by his barking dog close at heel. However, at some point in the tunnels both the piping and the barking went silent. The piper never emerged from the caves, nor was he ever found.

Read more tales of hauntings at our places: Ghosts of the Trust

The Loch Ness Monster

Most famous of all of Scotland’s mythological creatures is of course Nessie. An internationally known Scottish legend, the Loch Ness Monster is said to inhabit the waters of Loch Ness in the Highlands, and is commonly described as long necked with the body of a serpent. ‘Sightings’ and public speculation have occurred regularly from the 1930s onwards, and Nessie, as it came to be known, is now an icon of Scottish myth. However the earliest possible reference to a monster in the area comes from an account of Saint Columba’s travels in 565, when he encountered a water beast in the River Ness (though the account is disputed by historians).

A much older myth, similar in nature, is that of the Stoor Worm. A giant sea serpent with deadly breath and a forked tongue, and an insatiable appetite, the myth of the Stoor Worm was most prevalent in Orkney and the Shetland Islands and was probably of Norse origin, brought over by the Vikings.

A willow sculpture that looks like the Loch Ness monster is in a large pond, half in, half out of the water.
Loch Ness Monster sculpture at Culzean Country Park

To celebrate Scotland’s Year of Stories, throughout 2022 we will be publishing pieces about our places and properties with hidden stories, the lives of the writers who collected and shared them, and readings and retellings of traditional Scottish tales.