The elder tree is a familiar sight in the Scottish hedgerow, with its flat-topped clusters of delicate cream flowers in late spring, followed by bunches of purple-black berries in autumn. It has perhaps the greatest number of practical uses of any plant, and a wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds it.
The bramble, as the common blackberry is known in Scotland, is a hedgerow stalwart. I’m sure many Scots of my generation will remember family days out to pick brambles on a late summer’s day, fingertips dyed crimson and wrists and ankles bearing at least one deep scratch, no matter how careful you’d been. The custom of bramble picking goes back thousands of years, and this humble plant, bane of gardeners everywhere, is steeped in folklore.
The Picts inhabited the east of Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth, from around the 4th to the 9th century. They left no written records so we know very little about their culture. Archaeology continues to gradually uncover more information about how the Picts lived but one thing that we already know for certain is that they were master craftsmen, and they’re perhaps best remembered today as skilled stonemasons. Three hundred and fifty Pictish stones have been found across Scotland, and their function remains a matter of debate.
One of the more obscure creatures of Scottish folklore is the yird-swine, a subterranean porcine carnivore that lives in graveyards and burrows through the earth, feeding on the corpses it finds there. Some unimaginative souls have suggested that yird-swines are badgers, ferrets, or even just big rats, but those who have had contact with the creatures would certainly swear otherwise.
The Arthurian legends have long been associated with England and Wales, but there is some evidence to suggest that King Arthur was in fact a Scot that lived in the seventh century: Artuir, the son of King Áedán Mac Gabráin of Dál Riata, a Gaelic kingdom encompassing the Scottish region now known as Argyll and Bute, and part of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Amongst the many Scottish myths associated with King Arthur is the story of Canonbie Dick, the northernmost version of the king under the mountain folklore motif in Britain.
In the toon o’ Kittlerumpit in the debatable lands, a goodman lived in a wee hoose wae his wife and bairn. One mornin’ the goodman telt his wife that he wis goin’ tae the fair. He kissed her goodbye and set aff, and he wis never seen again. His poor wife wis left wae very little, and wae the bairn tae look after she wis fair in a fash. Her neighbours were aw sorry fer her, but naebody helped her. Her only consolation wis her sow, fer it wis soon tae farrow and she hoped fer a good litter.
Perhaps the greatest and most prolific Scottish myth of all can be found where it’s least expected: in the beloved system of clan tartans.
The earliest example of tartan found in Scotland dates to the third century and was used as a stopper in an earthenware pot found on St Kilda. Known as the Falkirk tartan, it’s a simple two coloured check, the undyed brown and white wool of the Soay sheep.
The Ùruisg (OO-rishk) is described variously as a faun or satyr-like creature with the lower half of a goat and the upper half of a human, or as a shambling wild man, covered in thick, shaggy hair, with long, sharp teeth and claws. The latter part of its name, uisg, comes from the Gaelic word for water, uisge, and the stories associated with it always take place near a stream.