Folklore of Ayrshire

The Rae family have been working the land of south Ayrshire for over 300 years. My interest in folklore started at a young age, my grandfather William Rae’s family farmed near Girvan on the Ayrshire coast, where they bred Ayrshire dairy cattle and Clydesdale horses. William Rae was a scholar of the poetry and prose of Robert Burns, and later in life was the President of the Alloway Burns Club. A folklorist, he would recount tales of the Sea People, mermaids, witches, cannibals, and of ghost stories. I continue this Rae storytelling tradition, search #AyrshireFolklore on Twitter as part of the #FolkloreThursday community.

The tale of Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, is a folklore and film collaboration with Bardsea-Green Films. Sawney’s cannibal family ate their way through over one thousand travellers along the south Ayrshire coastline.

The Tale of Sawney Bean

Faeries and Elves

Arran Faeries, part 1: a farmer’s wife on the Isle of Arran became rather lethargic and no amount of effort would wake her from her sleep. Her husband, watching one evening, witnessed faeries enter her room and turn her into a horse, that pulled their cart all night.

Arran Faeries, part 2: a faerie realm can be found in the stone circle of Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran. To gain the favour of these faeries, one must pour milk through the hole of a stone called “Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat”.

Arran Faeries, part 3:  in a cave on the hillside at Corriegills on the Isle of Arran, faeries live. This cave was apparently full of treasure. An old man called Fullarton frequently took them some wool, man and faeries would sit at the entrance to the cave, knitting.

Elf-hame: The cave network, Cleaves Cove near Dalry, was previously known as Elf-hame (Elf-home), as locals believed these magical beings lived there.

Culzean Faeries: In a cave under Culzean Castle, faeries gather once a year. For what purpose remains a mystery.

Mermaids and Selkies

Knockdolian Mermaid: Legend has it that a mermaid used to come from the waters surrounding Knockdolian Castle at night to sit on a particular black stone and sing. However, the singing would wake up the infant heir to Knockdolian Castle. To solve the problem, the Lady of Knockdolian had the stone smashed to pieces. The following night, as the mermaid returned to find her favourite seat destroyed, she sang this curse:

“You can sit by your cradle,
And greet for your wean,
There will never be an heir,
To Knockdolian again.”

A few nights later the cradle was found overturned and the baby dead. Thereafter, true to the mermaid’s curse, the family became extinct.

Mermaids Cave: The island of Ailsa Craig lies of the Ayrshire coast. The Water Cave has a pillared entrance at sea level. This cave is also known as the Mermaids Cave. You can hear the moaning and whistling of seals as you enter, perhaps the origin of the mermaid name, or perhaps these seals are in fact, selkies.

Son of the Sea

Young women travelling alone on Arran must beware the charms of strangers. Manannán mac Lir (son of the sea), warrior and king of the Otherworld, whose realm encompasses the great sea fortresses of Emhain Abhlach (The Isle of Arran) and Inish Falga ( The Isle of Man), will come to take away mortal woman to his realm.

Sea Witch

Over the centuries, many a local fisherman has met with a watery end attempting to follow the haunting melody coming from the rocks where the Sea People would bask in the sun. The singer, a Sea Witch, lamenting her own children, lost to the sea.

Witches and Witchcraft

In Scotland, there was a time when fear and hatred of magic and its practitioners reached such fever pitch that hundreds of men and women were hunted down and made to suffer for alleged crimes of witchcraft.

Bessie Dunlop: In 1576, thirteen years after the Witchcraft Act was passed in Scotland, Bessie Dunlop was a married woman – the wife of Andrew Jack from Lyne in Ayrshire, when she was arrested due to her longstanding reputation as a healer. Bessie also had a skill for helping people find stolen goods and was charged with: “the using of sorcerie, witchcraft and incantatione, with invocation of spretis of the devill, continewand in familiarite with thame, at all sic tymes as sche thocht expedient, deling with charmes, and abusing pepill with devillisch craft of sorcerie foirsaid.. usit thie divers yeiris bypast”. A jury found Bessie guilty of all the charges against her, and she was condemned to death.

Margaret Barclay was married to Archibald Dean, a respected citizen of Irvine. After a quarral erupted between Margaret and her in-laws in 1618 over an alleged theft, Margaret was accused of cursing her sister-in-law Janet Dean. Margaret was later said to have cursed a cargo boat owned by her brother-in-law John Dean. When the boat was recorded as lost at sea – with John onboard – Margaret was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft. Interogaters placed iron bars upon her outstreched legs one at a time until the pain became unbearable, eventually drawing a confession out of her. She was sentenced to death.

In the later 1500s, Maggie Osborne of Ayr came to bear a grudge against a particular family, and caused their house to be engulfed by snow. The only survivor was a sailor who happened to be away at sea, so a storm was conjured up which sank his ship with all hands. Maggie soon began to suspect that her maid had discovered her secret. One night, while the maid was brewing beer (Maggie kept an inn) a gang of ferocious cats invaded the outhouse and threw themselves at her, trying to tumble her into the boiling vat. Grabbing a ladle, the girl splashed the steaming liquid over her assailants, giving special attention to their leader. Next day, Maggie (who was an adept shape-shifter) stayed in her bed, and it turned out that she had been badly scalded. The maid told all she knew to the town’s minister, William Adair, and Maggie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be burned at the Malt Cross.

Walter Whiteford, the 17th century “Warlock Laird of Fail”, educated abroad, Walter spoke many languages, and was apparently instructed into the ‘dark arts’ at a University in northern Italy.

“Rowan-tree and red thread
Keep the devils frae their speed”

A ballad of this title by the local historian, Joseph Train, published in 1814, recounts the story of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie out hunting with the Laird of Fail and the pair come across a house in which the wife is brewing ale. The wife serves Sir Thomas a drink, however she is terrified of the Laird who looks like the Devil and refuses him entry; accusing him of causing her milk cow to die, bewitch her child, her churn to tip over, and her dog to die. The Laird responds by taking a ‘pin’ and reciting a charm he placed it above the doorway, resulting in a spell that forced the wife to dance and sing uncontrollably.

Ghost Stories

Green Lady of the Barony of Ladyland is a glaistig, a ghost from Scottish mythology, a type of malevolent spirit. It is also known as maighdean uaine (Green Maiden), and may appear as a woman of beauty or as a half-woman and half-goat similar to a faun or satyr, or in the shape of a goat. The lower goat half of her hybrid form is usually disguised by a long, flowing green robe or dress, and the woman often appears grey with long yellow hair. Another rendition of the glaistig legend is that she was once a mortal noblewoman, but a malevolent faerie cursed her with goat’s legs and immortality.

The 4th Earl of Cassillis haunts the halls of Culzean Castle. A particularly evil man, he captured the abbot of Crossraguel and roasted him alive until he agreed to sign over his lands.

Dundonald Castle is haunted by a Hobgoblin. This malevolent spirit is described as being 3 feet tall, human-looking, but with glowing red eyes. Sounds similar to the Red Cap goblin from Borders folklore, they are found in abandoned castles along the Anglo Scottish border. Evil creatures.

Mythical Creatures

White Wurm of Dalry: a dragon was said to have terrified the area around Moot Hill. A local blacksmith constructed a suit of armour with retractable spikes, so that when the dragon swallowed him, the dragon was wripped to pieces from the inside.

The Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that is found in the waters of the western coast of Scotland, including Ayrshire. It preys on otters, and livestock being transported on ships. It generally takes the appearance of a giant water bird, but is “larger than seventeen of the biggest eagles put together”.

Arran Sea Monster: 1931, fishermen from Arran witnessed a strange sea monster resting on rocks near Holy Isle. This creature had the body of a seal, the peak of a parrot, but was the size of an elephant.


Selected references:

McKim, Claire 2015 Five of Scotland’s infamous witch trials

Paterson, James 1847 The Ballads and Songs of Ayrshire

Rose, Carol 2001 Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth