exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

Kirkyard Critters: The Dreaded Yird-Swine

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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.

Sightings of the creature seem to be confined to Aberdeenshire, and it’s been suggested that it originates from the old Walla Kirkyard there. G.W. Anderson noted in his 1891 work, Lays of Strathbogie, that the yird-swine’s teeth could be heard crunching on coffins by those who were unfortunate enough to pass within earshot of the grounds.

The earliest mention of the yird-swine that I’ve found dates back to 1881. In Notes on the Folklore of the North East of Scotland, Rev. Walter Gregor recounts how an old and well-used graveyard on the east coast was to be closed, and the parishioners were very reluctant to begin using the new graveyard that had been provided for them.

What was to be done? A shoemaker, whose shop was the meeting place of many of the people of the village, was equal to the difficulty. One night, when a few of the villagers were in the shop, the shoemaker announced that there were yird-swine in the old graveyard. All were aroused but hoped that what the shoemaker said might be a mistake. “No mistake,” said the man. “I can show you one that was got in the very place.” The cry was “Lat’s see ‘t.” A water rat was produced. “An that’s a yird-swine, is ‘t, the creatir it eats the dead bodies?” said the men, standing at a distance, and looking in horror on the abhorred beast. “Aye, that’s the real yird-swine.” The news spread like fire through the village, and many visited the shop to convince themselves of the dreadful truth. The fate of the old graveyard was sealed in that village.

A Mr Archibald, in a letter written in 1917 and now held by the archives of the National Museum of Scotland, recalled his father finding a yird-swine fifty years previously when he turned up its nest while ploughing the land beside the river Deveron:

“He tried to kill it with his foot, but it bit and cut his boot, and he killed it with a tree branch and brought it home. It was brown in colour, somewhat like a rat. Their nests were from time to time turned up by the plough, but the animals themselves were very rarely seen, reputed to frequent the churchyards. This was in the immediate neighbourhood of a churchyard which was eventually disused owing to the firm belief that it was infested. They invariably lived in the immediate neighbourhood of water, and their nests were in haughs.”

In 1915, a yird-swine was killed by a ploughman in the parish churchyard in Mastrick, Aberdeenshire. It was said to have mole-like feet, white tusks, and a prominent snout.

One of the works referenced by Rev. Gregor, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson, states:

it was a custom in ancient times to bury a dog or a boar alive under the cornerstone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the churchyard.

He further references a grave-sow, or graysow, which was said to be the apparition of a sow that was buried alive, and which foretold a death. It’s interesting to note that this book was published only two years before Notes on the Folklore of the North East of Scotland, and it’s not unrealistic to think that these snippets of stories could have made their way up the east coast to Aberdeen by 1881 to be relayed from person to person and suffused into the folklore there, the incorporeal sacrificial pig eventually surfacing as the story of the yird-swine.