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Scottish folklore

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Title: Scottish folklore  
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Subject: Satyr, Fairy, Tam Lin, Cú Chulainn, Sluagh, Lewis Spence, Historical fantasy, Household deity, Scottish Renaissance, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor
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Scottish folklore

Scottish mythology may refer to any of the mythologies of Scotland. Myths have emerged for various purposes throughout the history of Scotland, sometimes being elaborated upon by successive generations, and at other times being completely rejected and replaced by other explanatory narratives.

National mythology

Several origin legends for the Scots were created during the historical period, serving various purposes.

One Scottish origin legend, or pseudo-historical account of the foundation of the Scottish people, appears in adapted form in the tenth-century Latin Life of St. Cathróe of Metz. It relates that settlers from Greek Asia Minor sailed the seas and arrived at Cruachan Feli “the mountain of Ireland”, probably for Cruachan Éli (Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo), a well-known place in Hiberno-Latin hagiography since Tírechán’s Collectanea. As they roamed through Ireland, from Clonmacnoise, Armagh and Kildare to Cork, and finally, to Bangor, they were continually engaged at war with the Pictanei. After some time, they crossed the Irish Sea to invade Caledonia North of Roman Britain, successively capturing Iona, the cities of Rigmhonath and Bellathor in the process. The latter places are echoed by the appearance of Cinnrígmonaid and Cinnbelathoir in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba. The territory so conquered was then named Scotia after Scota, the Egyptian wife of Spartan commander Nél or Niul, and St. Patrick converted the people to Christianity.[1]

Once the Picts adopted Gaelic culture and their actual characteristics faded out of memory, folkloric elements filled the gaps of history. Their "sudden disappearance" was explained as a slaughter happening at a banquet given by Kenneth MacAlpin (an international folklore motif) and they were ascribed with powers like those of the fairies, brewing heather from secret recipes and living in underground chambers. In the eighteenth century the Picts were co-opted as a "Germanic" race.

Ulster Cycle

Because of the movement of people from Ulster to west Scotland, which resulted in close linguistic links between Ulster and the west of Scotland much of Gaelic mythology was imported to Scotland and possibly some of it written in Scotland. The Ulster Cycle, set around the beginning of the Christian era, consists of a group of heroic stories dealing with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, the great hero Cúchulainn, and of their friends, lovers, and enemies. These are the Ulaid, or people of the North-Eastern corner of Ireland and the action of the stories centres round the royal court at Emain Macha, close to the modern city of Armagh. The Ulaid had close links with Gaelic Scotland, where Cúchulainn is said to have learned the arts of war. The cycle consists of stories of the births, early lives and training, wooings, battles, feastings and deaths of the heroes and reflects a warrior society in which warfare consists mainly of single combats and wealth is measured mainly in cattle. These stories are written for the most part in prose. The centrepiece of the Ulster Cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Other important Ulster Cycle tales include The Tragic Death of Aife's only Son, Fled Bricrenn "Bricriu's Feast", and Togail Bruidne Dá Derga "The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel". This cycle is, in some respects, close to the mythological cycle of the rest of the Gaelic speaking world. Some of the characters from the latter reappear, and the same sort of shape-shifting magic is much in evidence, side by side with a grim, almost callous realism. While it may be supposed that a few characters, such as Medb or Cú Roí, of once being deities, and Cúchulainn in particular displays superhuman prowess, the characters are firmly mortal and rooted in a specific time and place. Scottish Gaelic adaptations of Ulster Cycle tales appear in the Glenmasan manuscript.

Finn and Fianna

The stories of Finn (Irish: Fionn) mac Cumhaill and his band of soldiers the Fianna, appear to be set around the 3rd century in Gaelic Ireland and Scotland. They differ from other Gaelic mythological cycles in the strength of their links with the Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland and there are many extant texts from that country. They also differ from the Ulster Cycle in that the stories are told mainly in verse and that in tone they are nearer to the tradition of romance than the tradition of epic. The single most important source for the Fenian Cycle is the Acallam na Senórach (Colloquy of the Old Men), which is found in two 15th-century manuscripts, the Book of Lismore and Laud 610, as well as a 17th-century manuscript from Killiney, County Dublin. The text is dated from linguistic evidence to the 12th century. The text records conversations between the last surviving members of the Fianna and Saint Patrick and runs to some 8,000 lines. The late dates of the manuscripts may reflect a longer oral tradition for the Fenian stories, the same oral tradition which was interpreted from Gaelic to English by James MacPherson in the Ossian stories. The Fianna of the story are divided into the Clann Baiscne, led by Fionnghall, and the Clann Morna, led by his enemy, Goll mac Morna. Goll killed Fionnghall's father, Cumhal, in battle and the boy Fionn was brought up in secrecy. As a youth, while being trained in the art of poetry, he accidentally burned his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge, which allowed him to suck or bite his thumb in order to receive bursts of stupendous wisdom. He took his place as the leader of his band and numerous tales are told of their adventures. Two of the greatest Gaelic tales, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne) and Oisin in Tir na nOg form part of the cycle. The Diarmuid and Grainne story, which is one of the few Fenian prose tales, is a probable source of Tristan and Iseult. The world of the Fenian Cycle is one in which professional warriors spend their time hunting, fighting, and engaging in adventures in the spirit world. New entrants into the band are expected to be knowledgeable in poetry as well as undergo a number of physical tests or ordeals. There is no religious element in these tales unless it is one of hero-worship.

Hebridean myths and legends

  • The Blue Men of the Minch (also known as storm kelpies), who occupy the stretch of water between Lewis and mainland Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sink.
  • Kelpies were said to occupy several lochs.
  • Seonaidh - a water-spirit who had to be offered ale.
  • Changelings - sickly offsprings of Faeries which are secretly swapped in place of a human child.

Shetland folklore

  • Wulvers are good natured creatures, similar to werewolves. They are said to leave food for poor families.

Religious mythology

Myth is sometimes an aspect of folklore, but not all myth is folklore, nor is all folklore myth or mythological. People who express an interest in mythology are often most focused on non-human (sometimes referred to as "supernatural") beings. There have been numerous groups of such entities in Scottish culture, some of them specific to particular ethnic groups (Gaelic, Norse, Germanic, etc.), others of them probably evolving from the circumstances unique to Scotland.

The Aos-sídhe, Sìdhichean, or "Fairies" were originally the pre-Christian divinities of Gaelic Scotland. Christianity began its brutal take-over of most original mythology, causing it to diminish in power and prominence. The medieval Gaelic literati grouped them together as the Tuatha De Danann, who share certain characteristics with other characters in Celtic literature. Folk beliefs about the Banshee also reflect aspects of these beings. There are other supernatural beings whose characteristics reflect folkloric patterns from around the world. Ancestral spirits, and giants who help to form the landscape and represent the forces of nature, are ubiquitous and may point to non-elite registers of mythology.

Loch Ness Monster

The first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was in the River Ness in 565 AD the Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he came across the locals burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man had been swimming the river when he was attacked by a "water beast" that had mauled him and dragged him under. They tried to rescue him in a boat, but were able only to drag up his corpse. Hearing this, Columba stunned the Picts by sending his follower Luigne moccu Min to swim across the river. The beast came after him, but Columba made the sign of the cross and commanded: "Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once. The beast immediately halted as if it had been "pulled back with ropes" and fled in terror, and both Columba's men and the pagan Picts praised God for the miracle.

Arthurian legend

Most Arthurian mythology native to Scotland has been passed down through Celtic speech in Scots Gaelic songs like 'Am Bronn Binn' and from Cumbric tales such as 'Y Goddodin '. In Arthurian legend Mordred son of King Arthur was raised in Orkney, and it is speculated that Camelon in Stirlingshire may have been the original 'Camelot'. There is a tradition that Arthur had a Scottish son called Smervie More.

See also



  • Reimann or Ousmann, De S. Cadroe abbate, ed. John Colgan, Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, Vol. 1. pp. 494 ff; in part reprinted by W.F. Skene, Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots. pp. 106–116; ed. the Bollandists, Acta Sanctorum. 1865. March 1, 473-80 (incomplete); ed. and tr. A.O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, A.D. 500 to 1286. (from Colgan's edition, pp. 495–7). No full translation has appeared to this date.
  • Dumville, D.N. "St Cathróe of Metz and the hagiography of exoticism." In Studies in Irish Hagiography. Saints and scholars, ed. John Carey, Máire Herbert and Pádraig Ó Riain. Dublin, 2001. 172-88.

Further reading

  • Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief: A History (Edinburgh, 2001; 2007)
  • Robert Chambers (1842)

External links

  • Timeless Myths: Celtic Mythology
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