The belief in an droch-shùil, the evil eye, and the charms protecting against it are perhaps the most enduring examples of Scottish folk magic, existing long after the once widespread beliefs in other aspects of magic and witchcraft had faded. Its roots lie in one of the most basic human emotions that is just as pervasive in today’s social media-driven world as it was in the simpler lives of farming folk hundreds of years ago: envy.
I first discovered Clota many moons ago when I began researching the existence of Scottish goddesses (like Dia Greine and the Cailleach) but there was so little known about her that I didn’t spend much time digging any deeper. After a recent conversation with a friend put her back on my radar, I decided to have another go at it and see if I could find out enough about Clota to make her worth writing about.
In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Donald Alexander McKenzie hails the Cailleach as the mother of all gods and goddesses in Scotland, and Scottish folk tale collector J.G MacKay refers to her as the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today. Although her name can be found throughout Scotland in folklore, customs, ancient monuments and the natural landscape, the Cailleach is one of the lesser-known figures of Celtic mythology and is often overlooked. Her true origins have been lost over time. She is vastly ancient and predates even the Celtic mythology of which she has become a part. One Highland folk tale states that she existed ‘from the long eternity of the world’.
With over 90,000 species inhabiting Scotland’s land, seas, and skies, there would have been no shortage of choice when it came to choosing the country’s national animal back in the day: highland cattle, the cheeky Scottish terrier, or the red squirrel, not to mention the majestic golden eagle or awe-inspiring red deer stag. The intelligent and fiercely loyal wolf was still roaming Scotland until the 18th century so they might have been likely candidates too, but the powers that be decided to think outside the box and go for something altogether different.
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.
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.