When Ghosts Are The Least Of Your Worries: Urban Beasties

Frances Mann tells tale of urban beasties, making ghosts and ghouls the least of your worries

Submitted by SarahManavis on 18-10-2017 16:30:24

Many of the Hallowe’en traditions we have today date back centuries to our Scottish and Irish ancestors. Despite the influences from our American cousins, we still cling on to our own distinctive way of doing things. 

Trick or Treaters? Nope – in Scotland you’re a guiser, part of a travelling band of dressed up mischief makers who are easily calmed by the offer of something nice to eat or drink. 

Carving pumpkins? Nope, we’re made of sterner stuff. Carved swedes are much scarier and there’s more chance of them being covered in blood. They’re damn hard to carve!

All of these traditions stemmed from the need to protect your family from the spirits who roamed freely on All Hallows Eve. Costumes and lanterns were designed to scare them away. But frankly, ghosts were the least of your worries because all year round there were far more mischievous beasts to fear. Some of their legends have left their mark on our present day landscape:


When you think about fairies, the first image that normally pops into mind are the Tinkerbell-esque, sparkly winged lovelies of every little girls’ dreams. But Scottish fairies are quite a bit uglier, a lot taller and much nastier. Throughout Scottish lore and legend, there are tales of unsuspecting souls who are lured away by the fairies, babies which are stolen or replaced by ‘changelings’, those who have the misfortune to fall in love with a fairy….the list goes on! 

In Scottish place names, there are many references to fairy lore and these are names still used today. In Gaelic, sìth or sìdh, pronounced “shee”, meaning ‘fairy’ or ‘hill’ can be found in names like ‘Schielhallion’ and ‘Glenshee’, to name just two. There are hundreds across Scotland, proving just how prevalent belief in the fairies was amongst the Scots. These were often places of natural dangers and tales of the fairies were used to keep children from straying too far into fairy glens. 

What about urban fairies? You don’t have to go roamin’ in the gloamin’ to find fairy haunts; there are some in Scotland’s cities too. One of the most famous is Tomnahuric Hill on the outskirts of Inverness, a large glacial hillock, around 220ft high, near the head of the Great Glen. Legend has it that the hill is inhabited by fairies and one story goes that two fiddlers were passing near the hill when they met an old man who asked them to play fiddle at his party. They needed the money and readily agreed to follow the man, who led them to Tomnahuric Hill. As the sun set, they entered the hill and emerged in a huge, richly furbished cavern. They were fed and watered, better than they ever could have imagined, and delighted the audience with their music. At the end of the party, the old man gave the men bags of gold and silver and returned them to the Inverness Road.

Soon, the men were attracting strange looks from passersby. The men soon noticed that their own clothes were very different to those others were wearing. Slowly realising that they had been away, not for one night, but for many years, they ran into the nearest kirk, where the minister was preaching a sermon. On hearing the name of God, the two men and the gold and silver they carried vanished into dust, terrifying the congregation. The legend finishes by claiming the men had been away for over 100 years. 

So think twice if you’re invited to a party in Inverness! 

Inverness, 1928


The Kelpies

Kelpies were another mythical beast, whose tales were used to scare young children, but with a very practical aim in mind. Kelpies are water-based, often taking the shape of a horse standing beside a river. The horse would appear placid to the innocent passerby but woe betide anyone who tried to get on the horse. Once astride a kelpie, you would not be able to dismount as it would rear up, take you below the waters and eat you for its lunch. As its tail hit the water, there would be a sound like a rumble of thunder. Tales like this made sure that children did not stray near dangerous waters, although you could control a kelpie if you were brave enough to grab hold of its bridle.

The legends of the Kelpies have had a new lease of life with the construction of Andy Scott’s huge sculptures in The Helix, Falkirk. As part of an extensive regeneration project, barren ex-industrial landscapes have been turned into new leisure spaces for the local community. The 30metre steel sculptures of Clydesdale horse heads, guarding over the Forth-Clyde Canal, are now a major attraction in the area. Andy Scott used the legends of the Kelpies as a start point for his design but then went on to incorporate the role of the working horses used in Scottish industry, right up into the 20th century. 

One of the horses, named Duke, has his head down, seeming placid and calm. The other, Baron, is rearing his head to the sky, just as the Kelpies did once they had their victim in their grasp. They dominate the surrounding landscape and on a sunny day the sun shines on them, making them sparkle, just as a mythical beast should!

Auld Clootie

Compared to other supernatural beings, an encounter with Auld Nick, Lucifer, Beelzebub, or as we know him in Scotland, Auld Clootie, was feared above all! There are tales throughout Scottish history about Clootie leading people astray with a promise of eternal life, a night of passion or riches in return for a soul, or forewarning of a terrible tragedy to come. 

In Edinburgh, the city’s Mercat Cross was a place where he was believed to appear, foretelling a future tragedy. One of the most famous events happened in 1513, when a man called Sir Richard Lawson witnessed the devil atop the Mercat Cross, reading out a list of names of those who were to die within the next 40 days, including the King himself, James IV. When he heard his own name called by Auld Clootie, Lawson, threw a coin to the Devil and appealed for mercy. The devil, being a true Scotsman, picked up the coin and vanished. 

Within weeks the Scots army was fighting on the Flodden Field, where the flower of Scottish nobility was massacred by Henry VIII’s army. King James was killed, as predicted, but Lawson survived to tell his tale. It is heartening to know the Devil can be bribed with the price of a small sherry. 

However, Edinburgh tradition still has it that Auld Clootie appears at the Mercat Cross before a great tragedy, declaring the names of those who are to die. Keep a few pennies to hand next time you’re walking down the Royal Mile at night.


Happy swede carving!

Mercat Cross


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