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Scottish myths and legends: From Mull to Braemar
Author Helen Fields takes us on a tour of Scotland and some of the most enduring and intriguing Scottish myths and legends
Scottish myths and legends: King Arthur
If we’re talking about Scottish myths and legends, shall we begin at Arthur’s Seat, gazing out across Edinburgh’s towers and tenements to its castle? Perhaps the most famous and enduring of any myth, the story of King Arthur has been linked to this magnificent hill fort. It’s easy to understand why the legend feels so close right here, as you look down upon the people scurrying around in the city and see the clouds hanging not so very high over your head.
It almost feels as if you could touch them. This is undoubtedly what Scotland does best. It stops you in your tracks, makes your heart beat a little slower, leaves you contemplating your place in history. Scotland’s links to the Arthurian legend are not limited to that one place. To visit Avalon, the mythical resting place of King Arthur, you need travel no further than Iona off the coast of Mull. Artur MacAeden, the son of a 6th century Scottish king, was laid to rest here. You can visit his grave. Historians have long argued whether or not he might have been the inspiration for the stories and poems that followed.
Scottish myths and legends: Sea gods
Iona has a stillness that does indeed feel supernatural. A magical place, however you choose to define such a quality. The air makes you feel more alive, the sea is hypnotic, and there is a little of the rabbit-hole about it. As if, at any moment, you might lose yourself entirely. This is the place, after all, where countless tales have been told of the island folk offering up gifts to the sea gods, pouring ale, porridge, or crushed shellfish into the waves. Some say those gifts were to prevent drownings.
Other legends note that the gifts were in return for precious seaweed to be washed up on the shore, or else to keep the fishing plentiful. Those sea gods seem ever present on the west coast. It’s hard not to believe in them, even today, when you walk Iona’s majestic shores.
Scottish myths and legends: Isle of Mull
On returning to the mainland via Mull, you’ll pass through the heartland of myth. Drink in the greenery, walk the edges of the many lochs, let the birds of prey swoop above your head, and take your time here. Begin at the standing stones of Lochbuie in the south, believed to date back to 3000 BC, and of which there were originally nine. When you take a minute to consider the history those granite slabs have seen, at the base of Ben Buie, amidst the sheep and deer in the boggy grass, the concept of Mull’s past residents believing in fairies, giants and witches seems rather less ridiculous. The standing stones are like a clock, ticking away a decade with every second.
Travel further northwest and you’ll uncover the secrets of MacKinnon’s Cave, the deepest sea cave in the Hebrides. But have a care. The seas can be rough at the cave mouth, and the rocky climb down to it is slippery. It’s worth the walk, though.
Far inside you’ll find Fingal’s Table, a huge flat rock brought here by the Irish giant Finn MacCumhaill, and used by early Christians and the island’s hermits as an altar. Linger too long and the fairies will come for you, as they did for a piper and his dog. He struck a bargain with them, that he would be allowed to live if he played music they enjoyed until he left the cave. Unfortunately, the fated piper never emerged, but his dog managed to make it out alive, though hairless and terrified.
Head northeast, and you’ll find yourself in Tobermory. Famed for its colourful arc of harbour homes and shops, loved for its pottery and its whisky, Tobermory has long been at the centre of tales of the Mull witches. Not just the odd one or two witches, but a whole race of them who made the isle their home. The most famous of them, the Doideag, was said to have sunk the Spanish Galleon that in 1588 made its grave in Tobermory Bay. Aboard that ship was a Spanish princess who set her sights on a married man from Clan Maclean. The man’s wife was having none of it and asked the Doideag to set the boat ablaze. The princess’s father sent an army to take his revenge on every woman on Mull, but the witches won out in the end.
As you’re heading south again, along the east coast, look around when you pass Loch Ba near Salen. It was there that Mull’s blue-faced winter witch would bathe in the loch’s pure waters to maintain her beauty and keep from ageing. Alas, the spell was broken when she failed to reach the waters early enough one morning and was spotted by a dog near the lake. Its gaze meant that she crumbled to dust on the loch’s shores, never to be seen again.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the September/October 2022 issue of Scotland, available to buy from Friday 19 August.
Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
Scotland magazine captures the spirit of this wild and wonderful nation, explores its history and heritage and recommends great places to visit, so you feel at home here, wherever you are in the world.