Growing up in Scotland, I have many fond memories of exploring remote and wild places, where the landscapes evoke a unique sense of atmosphere and of things unheard or unseen. There is something magical in the way the haar rolls in off the coast, shrouding the sea in a mythical fog, or the quiet stillness found at the summit of a mountain, with nothing but clouds or empty space all around. And, sometimes, you may spend time in these places and find yourself feeling like you’re not alone, and that maybe that specter in the corner of your eye while in quiet woods or isolated moorland wasn’t just in your imagination. For me, the landscapes have always held both an eerie and otherworldly power, leading me to imagine a certain kind of tempting darkness lurking just out of reach. From the rich stories we tell in Scotland of omens and superstitions, of death, mischief, and hauntings, I’m definitely not the only one drawn into this feeling.
One of my clearest memories of first encountering these omens as a child was during a walk in our local woodlands with family friends. While going off path, we followed a trail of speckled light cast from between the eaves of tall pine trees towards a clearing inhabited only by a perfect circle of mushrooms. I remember the stillness of the surroundings as we inspected the phenomenon—something not easily explained to a childlike gaze. I was about to step in to inspect it closer when one family friend held up his hand.
“Careful of the fairy rings. Step inside them, and you might be trapped there forever.”
Later I found out stories of these rings would often tell of a more ominous fate—those who step inside one are destined to die young. Like many fairy tales and fables around the world, these stories from Scottish folklore touch often on the nature of mortality and dark forces beyond our control. These kind of encounters throughout my childhood, of places haunted, strange creatures, landscapes cursed, and the superstitions that my parents and grandparents followed—and still follow—to ward off death and misfortune, sparked my ongoing interest in all things myth and macabre.
In Scotland, there’s no shortage of omen- and death-shaped stories—creatures, spirits, dark forces, and malevolent beings that roam our hills and moors, our lochs and seas, our woodlands and rivers, and even our cities and cemeteries. Over the last few years I’ve found myself particularly drawn to these ideas in my own writing, reconnecting with Scotland’s folklore. The common themes of the cyclical nature of death and life started to come through more and more, and I found myself examining the omens and symbolism around them.
While in Scottish folklore there isn’t strictly a single “underworld” for life after death, there is a fairy realm or Otherworld. Many of the omens of death lead people not only to their end, but sometimes to be brought to this mysterious place so close to our own realm, steeped in magic and filled with forces darker than in the land above. Despite its dangers, many of our tales also hint at a temptation of reaching this Otherworld, of conquering the unexplained, even if it will lead to our “earthly” demise.
Some of the stories and omens in Scottish folklore are vaguer in their foretelling of misfortune, while others provide a way of “seeing death” before it happens. First, there are omens that simply act as the messengers or guides towards a future grisly end. One of the most commonly known omens in both Celtic and European myth is the will-o’-the-wisp, a spirit light that would appear in dark and remote places, sometimes guiding the weary traveler to their deaths. Similarly, magpies get a bad reputation in many cultures, but for me growing up, the idea of a solitary magpie was to be feared, and there is one belief in Scottish lore that says if a single magpie appears in the window, then death is near.
Other omens are more direct in bringing death, often taking dark forms of creatures, known and unknown, as they shift between realms, taking souls or offerings to the Otherworld. In our waters, there’s the Marool from Shetland folklore, a giant fish-like creature with razor-sharp teeth that sings a song after its victory of leading sailors to their death, or the famous Kelpie or Each Uisge, a horse that would rise from the water to steal children away into the Otherworld, drowning them first.
Another similar horse-like creature tied to the water, the Nuckelavee, is one of the most gruesome beings I’ve come across from Scottish folklore. Known sometimes as the “devil of the sea,” the creature from Orcadian mythology is depicted as a terrifying sea beast, part horse and part man, with no skin and tar-like blood. Its breath could cause droughts, spoil crops, and bring about a plague killing any who crossed its path. The Nuckelavee is often depicted as at odds with the more subdued Sea Mither, who keeps the creature contained during the summer months. Winter, it seemed, was the true enemy of the tale. Similarly, the Sluagh, seen particularly in colder months, took the form of a flock of birds that were said to be spirits of the restless dead, searching for souls to steal.
Continuing with the animal kingdom, there’s also a cat and dog fairy pair that have become similar harbingers of death. The sneakier version of the pair, the Cat Sìth, appeared as a black cat sometimes described as a shapeshifting witch and would prowl dark streets to seek the souls of the dead. Where the Cat Sìth steals souls, the Cù-Sìth is said to transport them. The dog-like creature is depicted as huge and green, lurking in shadows with glowing yellow eyes, but it’s the bark that’s the most terrifying. If you hear it howling, and don’t get away before hearing the third bark, you would be instantly struck dead from terror.
The Cù-Sìth is not the only death-on-sight omen. If you’re walking by a Scottish river or burn, and are unfortunate enough to see the Bean Nighe, a lonely washer-woman who cleans the clothes of those destined to die, you would be marked instantly for death.
So, why are so many Scottish folktales so dark and gruesome, foretelling of doom and danger? The landscapes themselves may offer one answer—often dark, cold, and otherworldly, especially in deepest winters, the folklore and omens maybe represent our darkest fears of wandering and living in such remote and unforgiving places. Many of these myths—the Kelpie, Marool, the Nuckelavee and others—go a long way to warn us of the dangers of the landscapes and climate around us. Don’t go too close to the loch, or the Kelpie might capture you. Avoid the sea in poor weather, or you might be dragged into its grey-black depths. Don’t step too far into remote places, or spirit lights will lead you to your death. In these places, there is an inherent liminality between life and death, and the warnings and omens go hand in hand with our landscape and unpredictable weather. Indeed, kind and helpful creatures in Scottish folklore are few and far between.
One of the things I love most about folklore is that it has this close connection to place, and the stories can tell us a lot about our local history, politics, culture, and environment. Looking at our coasts and seas, for example, gives us an insight into our history of seafaring, commonly tackling journeys across treacherous waters. There are so many creatures and stories explaining why ships might wreck, or why people may disappear or go missing at sea. This is a landscape that for a long time was more nature’s dominion than it was ours, and with these omens and tales there’s an acceptance that to fight back against nature would lead to our downfall—a concept of respecting our natural world that I wish we took more seriously nowadays.
Since delving more and more into the dark roots of Scottish folklore, I’ve found myself wanting to make more of an effort to be respectful and more in tune with the natural world. When I’m exploring landscapes, I have a new appreciation for both their wildness and their fragility. I am also drawn to superstitions in my everyday life, some becoming rituals, like saluting a solitary magpie, or avoiding stepping too close to mushroom fairy rings when walking in the woods.
Beyond the landscapes, Scotland also has a long and bloody history, and the idea that death could often be just around the corner was likely pervasive in the time these stories were first told. In this way, these folktales offer an insight into what life was like, and maybe, back then they also helped to bring an acceptance about death by placing an explanation on it—its inevitability or that it could happen to anyone, because of forces out of our control.
However, in some of these myths and legends, omens can be caught out, empowering those who find a loophole to conquer the landscapes and death itself, often getting something in return. This points to a certain resilience and hope that existed, despite the difficulties of life. With the Bean Nighe, for example, if you see her before she spots you, she must grant you a wish or a gift, and the will-o’-the-wisp might on occasion lead a traveler to treasure. So, at least in some of these stories there’s an idea that the gap between life and death has an element of luck thrown in, to level the playing field.
While I wasn’t brought up with religion, there is still an inherent spirituality in this respect for life, death, landscapes, and nature that has been ingrained in me from a young age through hearing these folktales and variations on them.
So, although at first glance the representation of death in Scottish folklore might feel all doom and gloom, or simply come across as gruesome tales of horror, returning to these stories over the past years has given me a renewed connection to my heritage, nature, and the landscapes I’ve grown up with. That said, if I see a strange formation of birds flying across the sky, or a ghost light on a quiet moorland, I might just turn the other way, and not tempt fate.
Lyndsey is a Scottish author of speculative and strange fiction. She’s a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, British Fantasy Award Finalist, former Hawthornden Fellow, and a Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant Recipient. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and magazines, and her BFA-finalist audio drama “Daughter of Fire and Water,” inspired by Scottish folklore, was produced by Alternative Stories & Fake Realities. Her debut novelette, “Have You Decided on Your Question,” was published in April 2023 with Shortwave Publishing, and she’s currently working on a number of longer projects, including a collection of dark stories from Scottish folklore. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via her website: www.lyndseycroal.co.uk.