© 2023
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scary Creatures of Scottish Folklore | Celtic Cultural Minute

The statue of the Selkie in Mikladalur, Faroe Islands.
Siegfried Rabanser
CC BY 2.0, Via Wikimedia Commons
The statue of the Selkie in Mikladalur, Faroe Islands.

The rich, magical folklore of the Celtic world is shaped in part by the landscapes of the Celtic countries – rocky coastlines, rich green fields, grey stone, and lonely hills, with more villages than cities.

But the wild and windswept Scottish landscape, from the Highlands to the Western Isles, is home to some of the darkest and strangest creatures in any folklore, and they’ve inspired and shaped Scottish literature, poetry and song, past and present.

The Scottish hills and glens are full of Brownies and the Shee, fairies and tricksters who must be appeased with offerings of milk and beer lest they steal away healthy human babies, leaving sickly fairy changelings in their place. The Nuckelavee is a nasty, skinless demon, part horse, part man whose breath can wilt crops and kill livestock, and the Hebrides are haunted by the Sluagh, a great flock of malevolent bird spirits, fallen angels that will snatch you away and drop you to your death.

But it’s by Scottish waters that you really need to stay on your toes…

That gentle horse grazing by the shoreline may really be a Kelpie, the legendary Water Horse, a conniving creature that roams the lonely lochs and rivers of Scotland, luring unsuspecting victims with its eerie, plaintive cry to mount and ride it, only to take the rider down into the waters and drown them.

Of course, there’s the infamous inhabitant of Loch Ness, a vast, dark, cold lake 23 miles long and 755 feet deep. The enormous monster made its first recorded appearance in the year 565, rising up to attack the Irish monk St. Columba, who had the presence of mind to make the sign of the cross over the startled monster as he ordered it back into the murky depths. Sightings of the long-necked, dark-eyed beast continue to this day.

But happily, we leave you with a gentler water tale from Scotland’s Western Isles - that of the Selkie or Silkie, a graceful shape-shifting sea creature, a seal who sheds their sealskin and assumes a human form on land or while basking on the rocks.

These Selkie folk are beautiful, gentle souls, and many the man who’s fallen in love with the Selkie, taken her away to marry and hidden her sealskin so she cannot return to the sea. Or of the woman unhappy in her human marriage who cried seven tears into the sea during high tide, and a Selkie came ashore, shed his sealskin, and loved her. But while Selkies make loving partners and happy marriages, they never stop longing for the sea, and if they find their sealskin again, they slip away in the night to their true home amidst the waves.

Still, on moonlit nights, the returned Selkies can been seen dancing on the shore, keeping eternal watch over the lovers and children they’ve left behind on land.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.
Related Content