Myths, Legends & Stories
Nat is a travel blogger from the UK, her website focuses on backpacking and budget travel. A few years ago she joined Macbackpackers on a 5 Day Highland Fling tour and fell in love with Scotland. So this year she made a trip back to our special country and joined us again, this time on our 3 Day Loch Ness and Skye tour.
One element of our tours that Nat loves are the stories that go with the destinations. Here she tells us about the myths, legends and stories that she discovered on her latest tour with us.
Photo credit: Nat/Natpacker
Myths, Legends & Stories From A Macbackpackers Tour
There’s no denying it, I am head over heels with Scotland. Completely. On my recent trip up I realised that this was the fourth time in five years. I got married up there and my honeymoon was driving around the Highlands. I happily revisit the same places as I also discover new places. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of Scotland. The country truly has my heart.
I also can’t deny how much I love travelling with Macbackpackers. This was my second trip with them and with them, I have discovered new places and revisited old favourites. For me, the best part about doing these tours is hearing the stories. The myths, legends and even histories. The guides are great storytellers.
On the 3 Day Loch Ness and Skye tour, I had Dave for a guide. He had a very casual way of telling stories and was good fun. Whether it was a story about a place we were simply passing or a stop, it always linked to the tour. Quite often he would link it with a song too (mostly by the Corries, who have now been added to my Spotify, thanks Dave!) Stories ranged from ancient myths, theories and even true histories.
So, here are the tales I was told on my recent trip with MaccyBees:
Our first stop on this tour was the Kelpies. This giant equine statues are the largest in the world and can be found in Helix Park. You may think that they just look like horses heads, but that is what they want you to think…
Kelpies are a Scottish faerie, a shapeshifting aquatic faerie to be precise. And they are not nice faeries either (very few faeries are like you see in Disney, they generally range from trickster to evil). Kelpies like to eat humans, you see. What they do is, they shapeshift into a horse, normally near a river or a stream. As they look like innocent horses they are particularly good at tricking children.
If you mount the Kelpie, its hide turns sticky and you are unable to dismount. So the Kelpie runs into the water and you drown.
So, never trust a horse by a river in Scotland…
As we passed the Trossachs National Park, Dave played The Corries version of Loch Lomond (the Loch is in this park). After the song was done he told us a story about its origins:
During the Jacobite Rebellion, any Jacobites captured by the English would be imprisoned in pairs, normally friends or brothers. The pair would then be given a choice. One would be taken to London to be executed, the other would go free to return home to Scotland. But here’s the catch, they had to choose.
It is believed that the two brothers were given this choice. They argued each one thought the other should live. The eldest brother had a wife and children, so the youngest said he should go home for them. But the eldest told the younger brother that he still needs to experience all that he has had, so should live. In the end, it was finally agreed that the youngest was to be executed the next morning.
However, when he awoke on the next day, his brother had already gone. He had woken up early to be executed, which had already been carried out, so the youngest was free. The eldest had left a note to the youngest brother, it is believed that the song comes from this note. In the song it is sung:
“O ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland a'fore ye”
The high road is the earth, the low road is the faerie road. The spirits of deceased Scots can take this faerie road back to Scotland if they have died abroad i.e. in England so that they can rest in peace. So the eldest brother will take this low road and reach home long before the youngest.
The Massacre of Glencoe
Walking in Glencoe
Glencoe is one of my favourite places to explore in Scotland and I was happy to come here for the third time on this tour. It is a beautiful place and I think it is made even more beautiful, if tragically beautiful, by its bloody history. This is what Dave told us:
During the Jacobite uprising, a Royal Proclamation offered a pardon to anyone who swore allegiance to King William before 1st January 1692, and severe punishments for those who didn’t. The Scottish chiefs asked permission from James VII to swear this allegiance unless an invasion could be launched before the deadline. However, due to delays in receiving this permission, the MacDonalds of Glencoe didn’t leave to swear the oath until 30th December, which meant that they missed the deadline. Although they did swear, the fact that they missed the deadline brought consequences.
In the very early hours of 13th February 1692, Robert Campbell massacred the MacDonalds. The company under Campbell were staying with the MacDonalds, being hosted by them. They received orders to kill all MacDonalds under 70 (so everyone). And that’s what they did. Estimates put the death toll at about 30, many were able to escape into the Hidden Valley.
Because of this Campbells are hated in Glencoe. There’s even an Inn that has a sign at the door saying “No Hawkers or Campbells”.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s apparently the inspiration for the Red Wedding in The Song of Ice and Fire book series (or A Game of Thrones T.V. series).
Dusk at Loch Ness
On the journey to our accommodation for the night, Dave told us all a bit about the Loch Ness Monster. As we were staying at the Lochside Hostel on the shore of Loch Ness (complete with its own Lochside beach), this was perfectly timed.
Dave asked us when we thought the first recording sighting of the monster was. None of us guessed anywhere near. It was 565. Yes, that long ago! Nessie was first seen by the Irish monk Saint Columba.
When Columba was staying with some Picts near the loch. He saw some of the locals burying a man, when he asked what happened he was told that the man was swimming in River Ness and was attacked by a water beast.
Columba told one of his followers to swim across the water. When the monster approached Columba made the sign of the cross and said "Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.” The monster stopped in its tracks and then turned and fled. This is also the only record of Nessie being violent towards people.
Most sightings have been since the 1920s, basically after the roads were improved. More people could get to Loch Ness, so more sightings have happened.
On the Shore of Loch Ness
The Tale Of Saucy Mary
The second day of this tour was spent on the Isle of Skye. As we passed through Kyleakin, Dave told us the legend of Saucy Mary.
A Viking Princess named Mary married a Scottish Clan Chief at Kyleakin. On the site of Castle Moil fortifications were built here for Mary. From this fortress a large chain was hung that reached to the mainland, blocking any boat from passing. So any boat that passed had to pay a toll and then Mary would lift the chain. Legend has it that Mary would then flash her breasts at the boat as they passed as a “Thank you” for paying the toll.
Scáthach And Cullin
The Isle of Skye is mountainous, with many valleys and peaks. Skye wasn’t always this way, it was made like this due to an ancient battle.
Scáthach, an ancient warrior woman once lived on Skye. She was the greatest fighter in the world. Unfortunately, word of here greatness reached Cúchulainn (Cullin), the greatest warrior in Ireland. Cúchulainn decided that no woman could be a better fighter than him, so he set sail for Skye. He would meet with Scáthach and fight her, proving once and for all who is the best.
Scáthach met with Cúchulainn and agreed to fight. It was a ferocious battle. Mountains and valleys were made when each was thrown to the ground. The earth literally moved as they fought, creating the Skye that we know today.
It is also said that Scáthachs daughter witnessed the battle and became upset. She ran down to the river near Sligachan Bridge (where we stopped for a walk) and she cried, as she could not see an end to the fight. Luckily, some of the faeries heard her cries and came to her aid. They told her that if she washed her face in the river she would know how to stop the battle. So she did and she had the solution.
Running back home, she gathered herbs and nuts. She threw the nuts and herbs in onto the fire, of her home. Then she fanned the smoke into the valley. When the warriors smelt the smoke they realised how hungry they were; they had been fighting for days, so they laid down their weapons and followed the smell.
This was the end of the battle. Cúchulainn ate under the roof of Scáthach, and so he became her guest.
The Old Man Of Storr
Unfortunately, on this tour we did not have the time (or the weather) to climb to the Old Man, but as we passed Dave told us the story of how the Old Man of Storr was formed.
The story goes that the Old Man was a giant who had a lot of silver. Three giantesses were jealous of his gold and wanted it, so they made a plan. They threw a massive party on one Saturday night and invited him. They all got very drunk and merry.
Now, Sunday is the day of rest when you are meant to do nothing but rest. So at 11:45 pm, the Old Man sat down, as he didn’t want to be doing anything when midnight came. This was not what the giantesses wanted, so one of them convinced him to have one final nightcap and put something in it… She then started trying to seduce him, so he was soon up dancing with her. Just before the last stroke of 12, the giantess sat down, but the Old Man didn't. As he was dancing on the sacred day God smote him. He was hit so hard that he was all but buried in his plunder. I’ll let you decide what part of his body is protruding…
The really interesting part of this story is that in 1890 the largest amount of Viking silver ever to be found was discovered here.
As the weather worsened Dave took us to Duntulm Castle, which was brilliant for a windy day. This is on the northern tip of Skye and in strong wind, you are literally blown about. It was hard to walk straight.
As we left the windswept castle ruins, Dave told us a bit of the clan history here. There were two main clans on Skye, the MacDonalds and MacLeods. It goes without saying that there was a lot of rivalry between the two clans.
To try and make peace a highborn MacLeod woman married the son of the MacDonald chief. Well, they handfasted, which means you have a trial marriage for a year and a day. At some point, during an argument with her husband, she fell and banged her head. This caused her eye to be removed. The MacDonald chief thinks that a one-eyed woman is no match for his son. So he sends her back to the MacLeods, but in a very unceremonious manner. He tied her facing backwards to the back of a one-eyed donkey, led by a one-eyed man, with a one-eyed dog.
Obviously, this was a big insult and MacLeod declared war on the MacDonalds. The son of the MacDonald chief, however, loved his wife and wanted her back, the MacLeods refused. So the MacDonald son tried to sneak her back, unfortunately, the MacLeods have been told to kill all MacDonalds on their land. He is spotted and shot on sight.
Duntulm Castle was abandoned by the MacDonald some years later.
Getting Blown About at Duntulm Castle
As we drove around the Isle of Skye, with the weather getting no better Dave told us about Flora MacDonald and her connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Flora helped the Prince escape to Skye, after his defeat at Culloden. From here he would find passage elsewhere until he finally came to France. To help him escape she dressed him in women’s clothes and went with him via ship to Skye. However, they went on a stormy night, which looked suspicious, so they were stopped and questioned. Flora said that she had a very ill relative that she was rushing to see.
All crew and passengers were questioned, but Charlie didn’t want to answer any questions, as he knew his voice would give him away. Luckily Flora was good at thinking on her feet and told the soldiers that Charlie was her maid who could speak no English.
Charlie was able to escape to France, but it didn’t go so well for Flora. The sailors were so proud of their exploit that their tongues started to wag after a few drinks. All the sailors were arrested and executed, Flora was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
After this story, Dave played The Corries version of The Skye Boat Song. I have heard versions of this song before, but never really listened to the words. So now this song has a whole new meaning for me.
The Five Sisters Of Kintail
The next day, back on the mainland we passed the Five Sisters of Kintail, which are five mountains.
It is said that a clansman had seven daughters. All his daughters were well taught and had skills. One day a very sorry boat came to the shore of the Loch Duich, where the eldest daughter, Morag, was fishing. Luckily Morag is very good at boat making and fixing so she agrees to fix his boat. The Captain and his brother become guests at the family’s home.
This turned out to be a bad idea. The Captain and his brother fall in love with the two youngest daughters. As it is traditional to marry the eldest daughter first, the father refuses the matches, until the brothers say that they have five elder brothers who would be happy to marry his other daughters. So the Captain and his brother sail away with the two youngest, promising to be back with their brothers in a year. They never come back.
After a year of waiting for the clansman goes into the woods to ask the wood witch for help. He asks her to keep his daughters useful until the brothers return to marry them. The next morning when he wakes up, he can not find his daughters anywhere. The witch had turned them into mountains, they will turn back into young women when the brothers return.
The Grey Man
Driving past the Cairngorms, on the way back to Edinburgh Dave told us about the Grey Man on Ben MacDui.
Ben MacDui is the highest peak in the Cairngorms and the second highest peak in the UK. A farmer once tried to climb the peak, but the weather turned bad. As he was losing visibility he decided to turn back, but he thought he heard something further up the trail. As he thought it was someone needing help, he called out but got no response. After a few tries, he turns back down the mountain, but he kept hearing something behind him. Whenever he tried to look, he could find nothing.
Later this man became the chairman of a hill walking committee and he told his story. To his amazement, many of the others had had the same experience.
It is believed to be the Grey Man of Ben MacDui. Few people actually see the creature, but similar tales have been told by many different people climbing this peak.
Dunkeld And The Thistle
The River Tay at Dunkeld
Our last stop before returning to Edinburgh was Dunkeld. As we approached the town, Dave told us a story of why the thistle is the emblem of Scotland.
In the past, the Vikings raided Scotland, quite a lot. A raid of Dunkeld was planned one night and to make sure they had the element of surprise, the Vikings took their shoes off. They thought that they could quietly sneak up on the town through the fields. What they didn’t know was that the field they needed to cross was full of thistles.
As they step on thistles they cried out. This warned the town of the raid, and so it was unsuccessful.
We went to many more places on this trip, including Glenfinnan Viaduct and Kilt Rock, but I wanted to focus on the awesome stories. I think it’s the stories and the guides that tell them that really make these tours as great as they are.
I often see online people whining about tours like Macbackpackers telling these stories. People say that they are making them up for tourists. However, many of the stories are based on ancient legends or actual events. I don’t understand their problem, as of how did any story gets created anyway? Plus, stories evolve over time, especially when told by word of mouth. So I say, keep doing what you’re doing and be the great storytellers that you are!
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