As a child touring Scotland I constantly nagged my parents to visit stone circles, brochs and standing stones. As I grew older I began to realise that many of these ancient sites had stories told of them and I found these stories as entrancing as the sites themselves.
(Stuart McHardy – On the Trail of Scotland’s Myths and Legends – Luath 2005)
Scotland is a land of beauty and mystery, rich in folk-tales and history…
When we are travelling there we always try to get a sense of place and, so doing, we’ve often been struck by a strong and undefinable sense of mystery. This feeling has repeatedly triggered our curiosity. So, once again, let’s go on our quest of Scotland!
There’s the tree that never grew,
There’s the bird that never flew,
There’s the fish that never swam,
There’s the bell that never rang…
One immediately feels the magic of the place when travelling on the roads of Scotland…
under changing skies…
the dramatic landscape with its succession of gloomy moors and lonely glens surrounded by heather-covered hills or rugged mountains…
and roaring torrents or waterfalls…
the sudden appearance of a ruined castle reflecting its solitary figure on the dark waters of a loch…
the omnipresence of very ancient prehistoric remains and historical vestiges…
the sea which is never far with its lovely sandy or pebbled beaches…
and spectacular cliffs inhabited by colonies of wild birds…
the rich fauna and flora…
here and there, well preserved, the impressive ruins of some prestigious abbey…
a tumultuous history..
for the bloody conflicts which opposed Scotland to England and clans against clans for centuries, the successive waves of invasions, the political and religious strife, the tragic page of the clearances or simply the daily struggle of the shepherd, the crofter, the fisherman to survive in a particularly harsh environment have left traces in the collective imaginary paving the way for story-tellers.
All these elements, nature, landscapes, ruins of castles and abbeys and history contribute to create a very appropriate background and atmosphere for the emergence of tales, myths and legends.
Each country has its own heritage of stories and traditions born from its environment and history but Scotland is particularly rich in them and lucky to have been served by great folklorists and gifted story-tellers who have devoted their life to preserving and transmitting these tales, myths and legends from generation to generation and all over the world for there are many Scottish minorities living abroad which are deeply attached to this heritage coming from the mother country.
If you love Scotland and old stories as we do, then follow us on the roads of Scotland and in books to discover more about Scottish folktales, myths and legends …
My library contains a number of Scottish books, some of them are very old like my twelve volumes of Wilson’s Tales of the Border. They are well-guarded as you can see but we must not disturb my beloved guardians nor my favourite reader, so let’s go on !
I will begin the exploration of my shelves with The Folk Tales of Scotland by Norah and William Montgomerie. This is a very nice hardback illustrated edition we’ve found in Scotland. I’ve already mentioned it in a previous post and was extremely happy then to receive a comment from Dian, Norah and William’s daughter.
A few days ago, it was a great pleasure to receive a letter from Dian. Born and educated in Scotland, she migrated to Australia before coming back to Britain where she lives with her family in Oxfordshire. How great it must have been to live with parents such as Norah and William, sharing adventures with them, reading and listening to their stories.
The folk tales of Scotland were passed down from storyteller to storyteller, and from the first few words they would hold the attention of the listener or reader as though a spell had been cast over them. The stories take place in a magical realm where mermaids and men, selkies and sailors, ogres and princesses, mingle and are miraculously transformed.
They are retold here by the Montgomeries, distinguished poets and folklorists, who gathered them from all parts of Scotland. First published in 1956, this collection has become a classic of the storytelling tradition. Newly published as a handsome gift edition, with the original illustrations by Norah Montgomerie, and told in simple, dramatic language, the stories will entrance adult and child alike.
The tales are drawn from every part of Scotland. For example, “The Well at the World’s End” is from Islay; “The King of Lochlin’s Three Daughters” from Inveraray; “Tam Scott and the Fin-Man” from Orkney; and “The Last of the Picts” from the Lowlands. (From the backcover of the book)
Dian has given us the link to the page on the Scottish Poetry Library which is devoted to her father, a great folklorist and poet, with a beautiful portrait, a very interesting biography, a bibliography and even a selection of lovely poems:
Here are the 12 colourful volumes of my Andrew Lang’s collection published by Dover Press in the 1960s but I have also collected, year after year, the magnificent volumes of the Folio edition. The last two volumes are still missing but as soon as my collection is complete I will publish a photo of it, beautifully lined up in the Folio corner of my library 😉
The Dover edition is great for it is illustrated with the original drawings.
Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books—also known as Andrew Lang’s “Coloured” Fairy Books or Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colors—are a series of twelve collections of fairy tales, published between 1889 and 1910. Each volume is distinguished by its own color. In all, 437 tales from a broad range of cultures and countries are presented.
Andrew Lang (1844–1912) was a Scots poet, novelist, and literary critic. Although he did not collect the stories himself from oral primary sources only Madame d’Aulnoy and Lang had collected tales from such a large variety of sources, which made the collections immensely influential. Lang gave many of the tales their first appearance in English. As acknowledged in the prefaces, although Lang himself made most of the selections, his wife and other translators did a large portion of the translating and retelling of the actual stories.
According to Anita Silvey, “The irony of Lang’s life and work is that although he wrote for a profession—literary criticism; fiction; poems; books and articles on anthropology, mythology, history, and travel…he is best recognized for the works he did not write.”
The books were primarily illustrated by Henry J. Ford. Lancelot Speed and G. P. Jacomb-Hood also contributed some illustrations.
- The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
- The Red Fairy Book (1890)
- The Green Fairy Book (1892)
- The Yellow Fairy Book (1894)
- The Pink Fairy Book (1897)
- The Grey Fairy Book (1900)
- The Violet Fairy Book (1901)
- The Crimson Fairy Book (1903)
- The Brown Fairy Book (1904)
- The Orange Fairy Book (1906)
- The Olive Fairy Book (1907)
- The Lilac Fairy Book (1910)
I would certainly not pass over Hugh Miller’s books Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland and My Schools & Schoolmasters which I’ve also downloaded on my kindle. In spite of his too short life, the work and writing of this exceptional and many-talented man is considerable and of great interest. We visited his white little cottage in Cromarty, during our last trip to Scotland and learned many things about this great Scot.
(B & W Publishing 1994)
Hugh Miller (1802-1856): Collector of Scottish folklore
Hugh Miller rose from humble origins as a stone-mason to become a leading journalist, a popular writer on the science of geology, a social commentator and campaigner, and a leader in church affairs. He was also one of Scotland’s early folklorists and his collection is an important source for the study of Scottish tradition. Miller recorded almost 350 legends, stories and customs, mostly from his native town of Cromarty and the surrounding area, and was the first person to make a systematic collection of folklore in the north of Scotland.
Most of Miller’s collection of folklore can be found in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835, expanded edition 1850), in his autobiographical My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) and in Tales and Sketches (1863), published after his death.
In re-telling traditional stories, Miller used his own intensely visual imagination and a polished literary style to create vivid and striking tales, still accessible to modern readers. Revived interest in Miller has led to the reprinting of his two principal works: Scenes and Legends and My Schools and Schoolmasters. Cromarty Courthouse Museum has researched Miller’s folklore, commissioned modern illustrations of some of the stories and contributed to academic studies. The Courthouse can supply copies of these books.
The Courthouse Museum has also compiled a database of legends, tales, local history and customs collected by Miller.
Hugh Miller’s birthplace, in Cromarty, is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and contains displays on all aspects of Miller’s life and work. Miller’s autobiographical My Schools and Schoolmasters is not simply about his schooldays but is an account of his life in Cromarty until he left at the age of 37. It provides valuable information about the background to his folklore.
( B & W Publishing 1993)
“Tradition is a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.”— JOHNSON.
(…) When a little fellow of about ten or twelve years of age, I was much addicted to reading, but found it no easy matter to gratify the propensity; until, having made myself acquainted with some people in the neighbourhood who were possessed of a few volumes, I was permitted to ransack their shelves, to the no small annoyance of the bookworm and the spider. I read incessantly; and as the appetite for reading, like every other kind of appetite, becomes stronger the more it is indulged, I felt, when I had consumed the whole, a still keener craving than before. I was quite in the predicament of the shipwrecked sailor, who expends his last morsel when on the open sea, and, like him too, I set myself to prey on my neighbours. Old grey-headed men, and especially old women, became my books; persons whose minds, not having been preoccupied by that artificial kind of learning which is the result of education, had gradually filled, as they passed through life, with the knowledge of what was occurring around them, and with the information derived from people of a similar cast with themselves, who had been born half an age earlier. And it was not long before I at least thought I discovered that their narratives had only to be translated into the language of books, to render them as interesting as even the better kind of written stories. They abounded with what I deemed as true delineations of character, as pleasing exhibitions of passion, and as striking instances of the vicissitudes of human affairs—with the vagaries of imaginations as vigorous, and the beliefs of superstitions as wild (…)
It has often been a subject of regret to me, that this oral knowledge of the past, which I deem so interesting, should be thus suffered to be lost. The meteor, says my motto, if it once fall, cannot be rekindled. Perhaps had I been as conversant, some five or ten years ago, with the art of the writer as with the narratives of my early monitors, no one at this time of day would have to entertain a similar feeling; but I was not so conversant with it, nor am I yet, and the occasion still remains. The Sibyline tomes of tradition are disappearing in this part of the country one by one; and I find, like Selkirk in his island when the rich fruits of autumn were dropping around him, that if I myself do not preserve them they must perish. I therefore set myself to the task of storing them up as I best may, and urge as my only apology the emergency of the case. Not merely do I regard them as the produce of centuries, and like the blossoms of the Aloe, interesting on this account alone, but also as a species of produce which the harvests of future centuries may fail to supply. True it is, that superstition is a weed indigenous to the human mind, and will spring up in the half-cultivated corners of society in every coming generation; but then the superstitions of the future may have little in common with those of the past. True it is, that human nature is intrinsically the same in all ages and all countries; but then it is not so with its ever-varying garb of custom and opinion, and never again may it wear this garb in the curious obsolete fashion of a century ago.—Geologists tell us that the earth produced its plants and animals at a time when the very stones of our oldest ruins existed only as mud or sand; but they were certainly not the plants and animals of Linnæus or Buffon.
The traditions of this part of the country, and of perhaps every other, may be divided into three great classes. Those of the first and simplest class are strictly local; they record real events, and owe their chief interest to their delineations of Character. Those of the second are pure inventions. They are formed mostly after a set of models furnished perhaps by the later bards, and are common—though varying in different places according to the taste of the several imitators who first introduced them, or the chance alterations which they afterwards received—to almost every district of Scotland. The traditions of the third and most complex class are combinations of the two others, with in some instances a dash of original invention, and in others a mixture of that superstitious credulity which can misconceive as ingeniously as the creative faculty can invent. (…)
I’ve found a selection of Hugh Miller’s works on Gutenberg and for those of our readers who have a kindle or any other e-book reader most of his works are available on Amazon for free. I’ve downloaded most of them on my virtual library which will be soon as large as my library at home, and that’s saying a lot 😉
Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) was a Scottish social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion. His most famous work, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), documents and details similar magical and religious beliefs across the globe. He posited that human belief progressed through three stages: primitive magic, replaced by religion, in turn replaced by science. The study of myth and religion became his areas of expertise. His prime sources of data were ancient histories and questionnaires mailed to missionaries and Imperial officials all over the globe. He was the first to detail the relations between myths and rituals. Amongst his other works are Totemism (1887), Pausanias and Other Greek Sketches (1900), Folk-lore and the Old Testament (1907) and Letters of William Cowper (as editor) (1912).
This unique edition [in two volumes] of The Golden Bough from Dead Dodo Vintage includes the full original text as well as exclusive features not available in other editions.
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). It was first published in two volumes in 1890; in three volumes in 1900; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes. The work was aimed at a wide literate audience raised on tales as told in such publications as Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855).
Frazer offered a modernist approach to discussing religion, treating it dispassionately as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. The influence of The Golden Bough on contemporary European literature and thought was substantial.
The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief to scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.
From the traditions surrounding the mysterious and deadly Mermaid of Galloway
to the truth behind Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor,
The Lore of Scotland is a magnificent collection of the stories
that haunt the castles, villages, lochs, mountains and glens of the Scottish landscape.
(from the back cover of The Lore of Scotland)
The Lore of Scotland lies open on my desk and I’ve dowloaded it on my kindle. It contains two sets of colourful pictures, many reproductions of old engravings and last but not least an illustrated map for each region of Scotland, each map being dotted with funny little symbols indicating what to see within a given place. It must be extremely useful when you visit Scotland, especially if you’ve dowloaded it on your e-book reader!
Just have a look at the list of map symbols, it could not be more detailed: animal legends, battles and escapes, buried treasure, clan and family legends, cures and charms, curses and divine interventions, death and burial, devils and demons, dragons and sea serpents, fairies and trows, ghosts and omens, giants and ogres, heroes and villains, kelpies and water-spirits, landmarks and local customs, landscape legends, legendary beings ,mermaids and selkies, murder and robbery, phrase-name and place-name, legends pipers and fiddlers, prehistoric remains, royalty, saints and miracles, supernatural creatures, tall tales, tricks and jokes, talismans and magical objects, wells and springs, witches and witchcraft, wizards and seers.
The contents of the book is organized according to the different regions of Scotland:
Argyllshire & Islands (The county of Argyllshire and the islands of Arran, Bute,and Lismore)
Central & Perthshire (The counties of Clackmannanshire, Dunbartonshire, Fife, Kinross-shire, Perthshire, and Stirlingshire)
Dumfries & Galloway (The counties of Dumfriesshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, and Wigtownshire)
Glasgow & Ayrshire (The counties of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, and Renfrewshire)
Lothian & Borders (The counties of Berwickshire, East Lothian, Midlothian, Peebleshire, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire, and West Lothian)
North East (The counties of Aberdeenshire, Angus, Banffshire, Kincardineshire, Moray, and Nairnshire)
Orkney & Shetland Isles
Southern Highlands (The counties of Inverness-shire and Ross & Cromarty)
Next to Andrew Lang’s fairy books I’ve put the four volumes of another great Scottish folklorist… one of the greatest maybe … “un personnage haut-en-couleur”…
If you follow any study, even that of a popular tale, far enough, it will lead you to a closed door, beyond which you cannot pass till you have searched and found the key, and every study will lead the wisest to a fast locked door at last; but knowledge lies beyond these doors, and one key may open the way to many a store which can be reached, and may be turned to evil or to good.
(J.F. Campbell – Popular Tales of the West Highlands – Dedication)
Popular Tales of the West Highlands (first published in 1860-62) is an enduring monument to John Francis Campbell (1822-85) and his assistants, who undertook an immense labour of love and travelled into the remotest regions to collect tales from storytellers who had themselves heard them as children over fifty years before. ‘It was customary’, one of them said, ‘for a few youngsters to gather into one house, and whither idle or at some work, such as knitting socks or spinning, they would amuse each other with some innocent diversion, or telling sgeulachds.’ These sgeulachds or Gaelic romances were magnificently translated by Campbell, a native Gaelic-speaker (also known as Iain Og Ile or Young John of Islay) and a leading authority on all aspects of Highland life. With word-by-word transcriptions of the original Gaelic of many stories, this is an irreplaceable sourcebook.
No specialist will want to be without these volumes. But anyone, specialist or not, opening the book at random, will at once be caught up in the magnificent story-telling, lost in a strangely familiar or totallly unexpected tale. Who could forget the Hoodie (malevolent crow) who appears so often, or the Daughter of the Skies, or the Sea-Maiden, or the giants and fairies, all with their subtly Gaelic flavour?
(From the backcover of Popular Tales of the West Highlands volume 1)
And that’s the book I’m reading presently.
- The Hollow Hills
- The Goddess in the Landscape
- The Cateran
- The Turn of the Seasons
- Supernatural Beings
- Witches and Warlocks
- Giant Lore
- Stone Circles and Standing Stones
- Wells, Trees and Sacred Groves
- And Then…
It would be too long to introduce within the limits of a single article all the books I have in my library on the subject of Scottish folk-lore. Several shelves are devoted to Walter Scott and James Hogg.
Without the pioneering work of the master of Abbotsford and of James Hogg to transcript on paper the old local ballads and songs of the Borders,
part of the rich cultural heritage of Scotland would have probably been lost…
We’ll say more about the subject in our future articles for it’s a never-ending quest , so stay tuned!
Bonne lecture et à bientôt.