exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Blood Soaked Redcaps of Border Folklore

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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.

The Redcap is usually depicted as a short, stocky old man with long sharp teeth, wiry fingers and razor-sharp nails, great red eyes, and long, straggly hair. He wears boots made of iron and carries a pike in his left hand. His red cap is stained with the blood of his victims, and it is said that if he allows the blood in his cap to dry out, he will die.

Any weary travellers who seek refuge in the haunts of a Redcap are quickly dispatched, either being crushed by the huge boulders that the Redcap rolls over them, or, if he’s feeling particularly vicious, the unfortunate victim is ripped to pieces by the Redcap’s teeth and nails before he soaks his cap with their blood. Despite the heavy pike and iron boots that the Redcap’s lumbered with, it’s impossible to outrun him, and he can overcome even the strongest man. The only way to escape is to quote scripture to him, causing the Redcap to vanish in a burst of flame, leaving behind only a large tooth on the spot where he was last seen.

The most famous of the Redcaps in Scottish folklore is Robin Redcap, the familiar of William de Soules, a Scottish Border nobleman in the early fourteenth century. Lord Soules was a cruel and violent man and was deeply unpopular with the people. He lived in the foreboding Hermitage Castle, once brilliantly described in a Radio Scotland broadcast as the embodiment of the phrase ‘sod off’ in stone.

Soules made a deal with the devil who appeared to him as a Redcap and promised him protection from his enemies, as told in the poem by John Leyden:

Lord Soules he sat in Hermitage castle,
And beside him Old Redcap sly; 
“Now, tell me, thou sprite, who art meikle of might,
The death that I must die!” 

“While thou shalt bear a charmed life, 
And hold that life of me,
’Gainst lance and arrow, sword and knife,
I shall thy warrant be.

“Nor forged steel, nor hempen band,
Shall e’er thy limbs confine,
Till threefold ropes of sifted sand
Around thy body twine.

In 1320, Lord Soules attempted to kidnap a young woman from her home, and when her father tried to stop him Soules killed him on the spot. Local people witnessed the incident and were on the verge of lynching Soules when the Laird of Mangerton intervened, calming the crowd before advising Soules to return to Hermitage Castle without his captive. Far from being grateful Soules invited the Laird of Mangerton to a banquet at Hermitage. When the Laird arrived, Soules stabbed him in the back, killing him.

Countless complaints had been made about Lord Soules over the years and by 1321 more and more were reaching the ears of the king, Robert the Bruce. When news of Soules’s latest atrocity reached Bruce he called for him to be put to death. Unfortunately Soules was protected by his Redcap and could not be bound by rope or injured by steel, so his ingenious executioners rolled him up in a sheet of lead and boiled him to death in a cauldron on Ninestane Rig, a ring of standing stones near Hermitage Castle.

On a circle of stones they plac’d the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine;
They heated it red and fiery hot,
Till the burnish’d brass did glimmer and shine.

They roll’d him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him in the cauldron red,
And melted him, lead, and bones and all.

At the Skelf-hill, the cauldron still
The men of Liddesdale can show;
And on the spot, where they boil’d the pot,
The whin and the deer-hair ne’er shall grow.

In Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1841), Robert Chambers recalls a verse shouted by brave boys into the crumbling doorways or windows of derelict castles and churches:

Redcapie-dossie, come oot ae yer daur,
Lift the sneck, and draw the bar!

He notes, “it is considered a feat of some daring, though the individual who  performs it usually runs away as fast as he can, immediately on having uttered the invocation.”