Icons of Scottish history, myth and folklore
Posted by Dan | Dec 4th, 2022 - 7:56pm
It is hard not to fall in love with some of the fantastic histories we
have here as such an ancient isle - we have developed a mixture of
mythos and real lore that gives all of the British Isles an
awe-inspiring list of characters and legends well-worth repeating
forever around campfires and to our children. Today we continue with our tour around the lore of the Celts, this time in the rugged northern lands of Scotland. A long and proud history mixes well with a wealth of folklore, myths and tall tales to pick from - so can you identify these 10 people and things, from reality and fiction, based on their stories?
A leader of Scotland in the 14th century, this person was one of the most renowned warriors of their generation and led the first Scottish War of Independence against the English. Thanks to both a handful of victorious battles, like Loudoun Hill and Bannockburn, mixed with guerilla tactics, they were able to establish Scotland's independence and even moved on to raiding northern England and into Ireland - truly a thorn in King Edward II's rule over England.
This character is taken from the Shakespearean tale of the same name, a Scottish general and their friend Banquo meets with witches who foretell that they will one day become the ruler of Scotland and their friend's sons will one day be king too. Motivated by this prophecy and their partner's encouragement, they kill the reigning King Duncan in his sleep - the king's children flee to safety, leaving the crown available for this person.
Now in power, but afraid of the prophecy that their friend Banquo's children will one day take the crown, they send an assassin to kill both the sons and Banquo. Haunted by their actions, they seek counsel with the witches again, who tell them that the only threat to their power is Macduff, but that no one born to a woman can harm them and that they will remain undefeated until Birnam Wood moves.
King Duncan's son is moved to fight against Macbeth by Macduff, and they move an army against Scotland - on their way, they cut down Birnam Wood to use as camouflage - and thus the wood moves. In their final encounter, it is revealed that Macduff was born by caesarean birth and finally ended this person's reign of betrayal and murder.
...this is of course the retelling of a story, however, the real life-counterpart did exist, and ruled over Scotland from 1040 until 1057 - a mostly peaceful rule, excluding some harassment from English invaders, not quite as dramatic and well known as the tale above.
These strange beings from Celtic mythology are shapeshifting seals who can transform into human form. These tales originate from the Northern Isles of Scotland and have found their way into many folktales, with the females of these creatures being lured into relationships with humans by someone stealing their sealskin. There are plenty of legends relating to them from all around Shetland and Orkney, but even further beyond to the Faroe Islands, Ireland and even Iceland.
An icon of Civil Engineering, this person was probably most famous for their construction of canal and infrastructure projects around the United Kingdom - they were so well known for infrastructure developments that they earned the nickname "The Colossus of Roads". Some of their key achievements include major developments on the Shropshire canal network, including the breathtaking Pontcysyllte aqueduct, as well as the Menai Suspension bridge linking Anglesey to the mainland and many more bridges throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Perhaps their most recognisable legacy is the town in Shropshire named after them...
This next piece of folklore is a strange bunch of beasties, a kind of house spirit or hobgoblin that appears when the owners are asleep to perform various chores. In return, the owners leave out a bowl of cream or milk, or some other offering usually by the hearth as a thank you - an important feat, as these creatures are easily offended and will leave if they feel they are being taken advantage of. A mischievous bunch, they often pull pranks as well as punish lazy servants and can be quite mean when they are angered.
Descriptions vary by local definitions, but are often described as brown, ugly and covered in hair, they also come in many sizes, but by most modern accounts they are rather small and are capable of turning invisible and shapeshifting into animal form. They dress in rags, and if a human attempts to gift them clothing or baptise them, they will leave forever...
This monarch is an iconic part of Scottish and British history, as it is this person who united the crowns of both Scotland and England/Ireland for the first time. They were the child of an iconic ruler with the title 'Queen of Scots', more on them later, as well as the descendent of Henry VII, making them a potential successor to the crown of England, Ireland and Scotland - they took the Scottish crown at the age of 13 months, and with the death of the last Tudor monarch in England, they became ruler over all three nations by 37. They campaigned towards a greater union between the nations, wishing for a single Parliament for both England and Scotland, a reign of mixed successes and many challenges including the Ulster Plantation, colonisation of the Americas, the gunpowder plot and repeated conflicts with the English parliament. That being said, they were a leader with a goal of peaceful reign, avoiding wars on the continent and a prolific writer - albeit perhaps overshadowed by the golden age of Elizabethan Literature where they were competing with the likes of John Donne, Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare.
Another monarch and an icon of Scottish history, perhaps best known by their title "Queen of Scots". The only legitimate surviving child of James V, they were just 6 days old when they inherited the throne, they spent the early part of their life in regencies in France, away from the isles during the Rough Wooing (a war between the Scottish and English). Their return from France would be difficult, not only had they married and widowed during that time, but a tense political climate due to Scottish Reforms that broke their links to the papacy - they managed to be a tolerant and pragmatic leader. Their next partner would give them an heir, but not before being murdered in their home. The prime suspect would be acquitted of the charge and marry the monarch in the following months, eventually, an uprising would see them imprisoned and the monarch forced to abdicate in favour of their 13-month-old son...
Sometimes known by the name of Storm Kelpies, these mythic beasts inhabit the waters between the Outer Hebrides and mainland Scotland where they look for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sink. They look more or less like humans, albeit their skin is a shade of blue, they swim like porpoises, sleep just below or float on the surface of the water and they possess the power to create storms. They are also fully capable of speech, the chief of a group may shout poetry to the captain of a ship - if the captain is not able to complete the verse, these creatures will attempt to sink the ship.
Perhaps a world-famous Scottish knight who served in the First War for Scottish Independence. They contributed to the defeat of the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and would earn the position "Guardian of Scotland", until their defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. by 1305, they would be captured by English forces and handed over to King Edward I who had them hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason and crimes against English Civilians. They lived a legend in Scotland, but since then they have been the title character of multiple pieces of media, entrenching them as perhaps the first Scot many people think of when thinking of Scottish history...
These creatures are native to the Scottish Highlands, a well-known and well-documented beast that spends its time roaming the hillsides and mountains of the area. A beast perfectly developed for such terrain, having its left and right legs different lengths to make it easier to roam the slopes (albeit, only in one direction, if they were to turn around they would surely tumble); it is stated that multiple varieties of these creatures exist, some with the left legs longer than the right and others the other way around, some able to run clockwise around mountains and others anti-clockwise. The two varieties coexist peacefully but are unable to interbreed as they are incapable of facing the same way. A truly spectacular being and without these amazing animals, Scotland's national dish would not be possible...
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