Redcaps are the malignant counterpart to the friendly household Brownies of Scottish folklore and can be found in the ruins of castles and towers in the Borders, especially those that have played host to bloody battles. Popular tradition attests that the foundation stones of the old Border castles were bathed in human blood by the Picts to draw these malevolent spirits to protect the buildings.
Once there was a great bard who was called Thomas the Rhymer, from Ercildoune. All through Scotland, from the Cheviot Hills to the Pentland Firth, the story of Thomas the Rhymer has long been known. It is told that he vanished for seven years and that when he reappeared he had the gift of prophecy, and was given the name of True Thomas. During his seven years absence from home he is said to have dwelt in Elfhame.
Scotland’s history is rich with plant lore, and archaeological evidence dates the earliest recorded use of natural remedies in the country to the bronze age. As recently as a few hundred years ago, most ailments were relieved by concoctions of herbs and plants and the healer’s medicine cabinet was stocked entirely from nature. Many of the stories of Scotland’s defining moments are punctuated with mentions of plants and flowers, and the folklore associated with them is woven into the history of the country.
For three hundred years, the nine of diamonds has been known as The Curse of Scotland, and it has come to be considered the most unlucky playing card in the deck. Numerous versions of the reason behind the curse have been put forward over the years.
The earliest recorded reference to the curse was published in The British Apollo, Curious Amusements for the Ingenious, a collection of questions and answers published in 1708.
Mermaids appear in the folklore of almost every country around the world, and Scotland is no exception. Given that no point in Scotland is further than sixty-six miles from the outlying seas, not to mention the myriad of inland lochs and rivers, it’s unsurprising that its mythology and folklore are packed with strange beings that make their homes in water. Known as the maighdeann-mhara (MY-jong VAH-reh) or maid of the wave, the belief in mermaids in Scotland was a common one, and their portrayals range from wraiths who steal children, bewitch men, and curse families, to much more benevolent creatures who offer advice, cure ailments, and grant wishes.
In Highland Perthshire in the 1640s the old village of Lawers sat on the north bank of Loch Tay at the foot of Ben Lawers, the highest Munro in Perthshire. There, in a two-story house known as Tigh Ban-tigheaona Labhair, the House of the Lady of Lawers, lived a spaewife, or soothsayer. She was the wife of John Stewart, the second son of the Laird of Appin, and her prophecies foretold everything from the fate of a beloved tree to the advent of the industrial age in Scotland.
There was a king and a queen, as there so often are, and they each had a daughter, for the queen was not the first wife of the king. The king’s daughter was called Anne, and the queen’s daughter was called Kate, and though Anne was far bonnier than Kate, they loved each other as though they were real sisters. The queen was green with jealousy at the king’s daughter’s beauty and she cast about to spoil it. She took the council of the hen-wife, who told her to send the lassie to her the next morning, hungry.
On 8th November 1576, Bessie Dunlop, an Ayrshire woman, appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh accused of ‘sorcery, witchcraft, and incantation, with invocation of spirits of the devil, continuing in familiarity with them at all such times as she thought expedient, dealing with charms, and jinxing the people with devilish craft of sorcery aforesaid’. But like so many people accused of witchcraft at the time of the trials, Bessie was just an ordinary woman who had never caused harm to anyone.