exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Tale of Jessie Macrae and the Ghillie Dhu

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Ghillie Dhu is a dark-haired tree sprite that lives in woods or thickets, with a preference for birch. Scotland’s forests were once heavily populated by these fairies, but they are now rare and confined to the are surrounding Loch Gairloch. They are shy creatures and dress in foliage and mosses to camouflage themselves from the human eye, though they do love the company of children, as evidenced in the story of Jessie Macrae and the Ghillie Dhu.

There was once a fairy who lived in a wood in the Gairloch in Ross-shire. He was called Ghillie Dhu, which means ‘dark servant’, because he had dark hair and dark eyes. His clothes were made of leaves and spun moss, and nobody feared him for he never did anyone any harm.

One day, a little girl, whose name was Jessie Macrae, was walking through the wood and lost her way. It was a summer’s day and the air was warm and bright so Jessie did not worry, but as twilight fell she began to grow afraid and hastened her steps. Try as she might, she could not find her way out of the wood. She was tired and her feet hurt, and she slumped down below a fir tree and began to cry. A voice from behind the tree spoke suddenly and asked, “Why are you crying, little girl?”

Jessie quickly spun around and saw a tiny little man. His hair was as black as the wing of a raven and his pink apple cheeks had merry dimples. His eyes were as brown as hazelnuts in September, and they gazed back at her, soft and kindly.

“Why are you crying?” the Ghillie Dhu asked again. “Your teardrops are falling like rain on the wee blue flowers at your feet.”

“I have lost my way,” said Jessie, “and the night is coming on and I don’t know how to get home.”

“Do not cry, little girl,” the Ghillie Dhu said kindly. “I shall lead you through the wood. I know all the paths – the rabbit’s path, the hare’s path, the fox’s path, the goat’s path, the path of the deer and the path of men. Where do you dwell?”

Jessie told him, and he said, “You have been walking every way but the right way. Follow me and you’ll reach home before the stars come out to peer at us through the trees.”

The Ghillie Dhu turned round about and walked off. He went so fast that Jessie feared she would lose sight of him with his turning round again and again but if he found that she was far behind, he danced a pretty dance until she came up to him, then he scampered on as before.

After some time they reached the edge of the wood, and Jessie saw her home beside the loch. The Ghillie Dhu bade her goodbye and said “Have I not led you well? Do not forget me! I am the Ghillie Dhu, and I love the company of little boys and girls. If ever you get lost in the wood again, call on me and I shall come to your aid. Goodbye, little girl, goodbye!”

“Goodbye, Ghillie Dhu!” Jessie called, and she waved to him as he trotted away merrily into the wood and was soon lost to her sight amongst the trees.

First collected in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie, 1917