Scotland is a magical, wondrous land. After all, no other country could pull off having a unicorn as its national animal. The folklore of Scotland reaches down into its stones, which in turn reach back up into its castles, built of that same rock. So, by hammer and tongs, let’s go in search of Scottish castle folklore.
My personal favorite is Dunvegan Castle. Located just north of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, it is the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacLeod. It has the distinction of being the longest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, first having started as a Norse fort and then being built into a full-fledged castle by Malcolm McLeod in 1350.
Even more distinguishing, though, is that it is home to Am Bratach Sith, the Fairy Flag. A silk flag, a darkening yellow in color, also has many small red elf dots on its surface. It is known for many magical properties: increasing fertility, curing cattle ailments, and increasing the fish population of the nearby loch, are among the most famous. It was given to the clan as a gift from the fairies, hence its name, although it is uncertain to whom it was given. Perhaps a young child chieftain, to help with his rule, or an adult chieftain who was the lover of a fairy. It was well enough known in the 1800s that Sir Walter Scott wrote about it.
Also located in the castle is the Dunvegan Cup, a relic stolen from the fairies by a witch’s son, and Sir Rory Mor’s Horn, a drinking horn that each chief must drink a full measure of wine from at his succession.
Duntulm Castle, in an area contest by the MacDonalds and the MacLeods, was a former MacDonald fortress with many haunted happenings. The ghost of Hugh MacDonald is said to cry out from his walled-up tomb, which he was forced into after betraying his siblings. He was fed salted meats until he died of dehydration, and still cries out for water. A livelier floating specter, the ghost of a clan chief gallivants around the castle grounds, carousing with the ghosts of his clan mates with drinking and fighting. MacDonald ghost porter is definitely on my ale bucket list.
There are female ghosties in the castle, as well, and are even more hauntingly spooky than the males. Margaret MacDonald is the weeping ghost of the castle. After having lost her eye through an accident involving a spear, her husband Donald left her and she was thrown out of the castle, made to leave on a one-eyed horse with a one-eyed servant and a one-eyed dog. She died nearby and her ghost returned to the castle, where her nightly wails can be heard by those who are soon to have an unfortunate accident of their own. Margaret also has a connection with Dunvegan Castle, being related to the MacLeods of Dunvegan.
The castle is said to have fallen to ruin after the death of a clan chief’s baby, having been dropped from a high window by a careless nursemaid. The nursemaid was either cast adrift into the sea or drown in the nearby loch. Personally, I feel it is the latter, as she made it back to the castle, where she haunts it, adding her horrible moaning to Margaret’s.
Glamis Castle has several legends. The most famous is that of the Monster of Glamis. This tale states that there is a bricked-up suite of rooms that holds a hideous monster, kept alone and apart from its family for its entire life. Stories vary as to who the monster is, with some accounts stating it was just a hideously deformed child of the chief, while others say that a vampire child is born to the family of every other generation. Just as spooky, more so due to its basis in reality, is the Room of Skulls, where the Ogilvie family left enemies to starve to death. It really is covered in bones and may be the basis for the bricked-in room of the aforementioned monster.
Another legend of Glamis Castle is that of Earl Beardie. The Earl wanted to play cards, and started to do so, but was warned to stop due to restrictions on gambling (and most forms of fun) on the Sabbath. The Earl became furious and said he would play until John’s Book of Revelation came true, and even then would keep playing with the Devil. A stranger soon appeared at the castle to join in the game, who turned out to be the Devil himself. Old Scratch took Earl Beardie’s soul, in some versions taking it straight to hell and in others condemning him to play cards until doomsday, with no rest.
King Malcolm I was said to have been wounded in a nearby battle, and was taken to a hunting lodge upon the grounds of which the Glamis Castle was later built, and his ghost has been seen prowling the halls. There are also stories of people seeing a young girl in the upper windows who suddenly vanishes from sight when acknowledged.
Columba's Chapel at Iona
Although not a castle, there is a wonderful bit of folklore regarding Columba’s chapel at Iona. St. Columba had traveled from Ireland to Scotland with twelve fellow priests and monks, one of whom was Odran (sometimes seen as Oran). They were having trouble with building the structure, as each morning they would find the previous day’s work undone. Finally, Saint Columba heard a voice, telling him that a living man must be buried in the foundation, in order for the building to succeed. Odran was consigned to this fate and was immediately buried.
However, three days later, Odran pulled himself up, lifting his head above the dirt. He startled Saint Columba and the rest of the group, bothering them, even more, when he spoke. He looked at them and said: “there is no Hell as you suppose, nor Heaven that people talk about.” This scared Saint Columba, who feared this blasphemy would undo them all, so he ordered dirt be once again piled on top of Odran, to save all of their souls, including Odran’s.
This seemed to have worked, as Odran was not heard from again and the chapel stood. There are other stories of foundation sacrifices in Great Britain, but the addition of the three-day time span that matches that of Jesus Christ’s resurrection after his crucifixion is an interesting combination. The oldest remaining church on Iona is dedicated to Saint Odran, and the attached cemetery is called Reilig Odhrain after him. In fact, I first heard about this tale in a fictionalized story called “In Relig Odhrain,” by Neil Gaiman in his 2015 compilation Trigger Warnings.
All things considered, it would probably be easier to count the number of Scottish castles that aren’t haunted or have some folklore attached to them. We also have: Stirling Castle, one of the castles where Scottish monarchs have been crowned, has the green lady, who was a servant to Mary Queen of Scots; Balmoral Castle is haunted by the ghost of Queen Victoria’s servant and possible lover, John Brown; Dalhousie Castle, on the banks of the River Esk, is haunted by Lady Catherine of Dalhousie’s ghost -- being forbidden to see her love, a local peasant boy, she locked herself away in a tower and starved herself to death and she is now seen, a figure of grey, both around the castle’s turrets and in the dungeons.
So when you’re planning your trip to Scotland, and plan on staying in a castle, keep these stories in mind. After all, who needs sleep? Slainte!
Further Reading and References
“Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott,” Robert Cadell (1837).
“A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides.” John Monk (1774).
“Skye, the Island and its legends.” Otta Swire (1999).
“Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland.” Adam and Charles Black (1861).
“Haunted Castles & Houses of Scotland.” Martin Coventry (2005).
“Scottish Ghosts: the Most Haunted Locations of Scotland.” Jeffrey Fisher (2014).
“A Hebridean Version of Colum Cille and St. Oran.” MacLeod Banks Folklore 42(1): 55-60 (1931).
“Trigger Warnings,” Neil Gaiman (2015)
© 2017 James Slaven