Folklore from the Cairngorms, including: Fairy Sweethearts, Green Fairy Dogs, Kelpies, Brownies, and Well Spirits
The birds are singing, the leaves are unfurling, could Spring finally be here? It's definitely a wonderful time to go wandering in search of fairies, and lucky me, I’ve just returned from a holiday in the beautiful Cairngorms of Scotland! Although little is spoken of fairy folklore in this area, a bit of digging turned up more folklore than I was expecting, including some wonderfully magical and very unusual stories. In days long ago, “almost every large common was said to have a Circle of Fairies belonging to it” (Shaw, 1827). “They glided familiarly among the folds and the bothies, listened to the songs in the gloaming, and, in fact, knew all that went on. As for themselves, they milked the deer on the mountain tops, and had in their possession all the requisite appurtenances of a Highland dairy.” The women of the shielings would hear their fairy music, but knew to avoid the green-kirtled fairies, they were vindictive and mischief making with thievish propensities (Sinton, 1906).
So what do Cairngorm fairies look like? “Though generally low in stature, they are exceedingly well proportioned, and prepossessing in their persons. The females, in particular, are said to be the most enchanting beings in the world, and far beyond what the liveliest fancy can paint. Eyes sparkling as the brightest of the stars, or the polished gem of Cairngorm, - cheeks in which the whiteness of the snow and red of the reddan are blended with the softness of the Cannoch down, - lips like the coral, and teeth like the ivory, - a redundant luxuriance of auburn hair, hanging down the shoulders in lovely ringlets, and a gainly simplicity of dress, always of the colour green, are prominent features in the description of a Highland fairy nymph” (Stewart, 1823). This is a rather romanticised description, but it does perhaps explain why fairy sweethearts are particularly common in the Cairngorms.
Stewart explains that “The fairies are remarkable for the amorousness of their dispositions, and are not very backward in forming attachments and connections with people that cannot with propriety be called their own species. We are told it is an undeniable fact, that it was once common practice with both sexes of the fairy people to form intimacies with human swains and damsels, whom they would visit at times and in places highly unbecoming and suspicious; and these improper intimacies not unfrequently produced, as may well be believed, their natural consequences”. He reassures us that “such intercourse as that described to have taken place betwixt them is now extremely rare: and, with the single exception of a good old shoemaker, now or lately in the village of Tomantoul, who confesses having had some dalliances with a “lanan shi” in his younger days, we do not know personally any one who has carried matters this length”.
Fairy sweethearts were also found in the Gaick Forest area, and were said to visit hunters in the forest. It was believed that the earthly wife of a hunter who fell in love with a fairy was in great danger of being hurt by her supernatural rival (Gordon, 1949).
A suspicious wife in Avie suspected her husband’s affections had strayed and one evening followed him as he set off up the glen. Much to her fury she saw a beautiful young lady in a green gown join her husband at a small rounded knoll in the middle of the glen. She sprang at them like a tigress but found she only grasped an empty green gown. She suddenly felt a calmness sweeping over her, and her husband too, and they lovingly entwined arms and walked home, forgetting their quarrels. As she entered her house she accidently snagged the dress on a nail and a piece of fabric fell to the floor. Her daughter picked it up and instantly transformed into the most beautiful woman, and the wife and her daughters forever carried a piece of the dress by their hearts, and all happily married and continued to pass pieces of the dress down to future generations (Gray, 1987).
A rather wonderful tale of a fairy lover is told of a soldier in Ruthven in 1644. A forester in Argyll’s army was followed wherever he went by his leannan-sith (fairy sweetheart) and she appeared in the form of a white hart. Whilst they were in camp near Ruthven Castle some of Argyll’s officers started to mock him about his follower, and unfortunately Argyll was a touchy fellow and in revenge he commanded some of his soldiers to shoot the hind. They took aim and fired but not a single bullet pierced her. However Argyll noticed that the forester had disobeyed his command, refusing to shoot at his love, and he was brought before Argyll and told that he alone must fire at the hind. The forester replied bravely, “I will fire at your command, Argyll, but it will be the last shot that I shall ever fire”, and scarcely was the charge out of his gun when he fell dead upon the spot. The fairy gave a terrifying scream and rose up like a cloud of mist and vanished into the mountains and was never again seen following the army. It was said that he left a widow back home in a place called the Fairy Corry, and that she wrote a lament about his body being laid to rest in Kingussie, so far from home, with no wife to lament for him (MacPhearson, Highland Monthly 1889-90) This lament is an old one but possibly unconnected to the story of the Fairy Sweetheart as it makes no actual mention of the above story (A big thank you to Kate Louise Mathis for her translation of this lament). Below you can see a photo of Ruthven Barracks, which now stands where the castle once stood:
Ruthven barracks, where Ruthven castle once stood
Fairy Abodes and Fairy Dancing
According to Elizabeth Taylor’s The Braemar Highlands (1869), the fairies lived below grassy eminences including a certain circular hillock near Glen Cluny. During moonlight they celebrated on the hill top, and at other times they stayed within the hill. A man once entered the hill and saw “a lot o’ little fouk dancing – the heartiest folk that ever he saw”. Some Cairngorms fairies prefer to dance on rocks, particularly the Big Stone of Cluny. One man saw them dancing by moonlight but when he showed his delight at the beautiful dance moves of one particular fairy she flew at him in a fury and almost strangled him before he could say a prayer! Below you can see the fairy stone as it appears on Google Maps.
Sometimes the fairies were accompanied by a fairy piper, as seen on a green hillock between Auchallater and Loch Callater (MacGillivray, 1855). Fairy Hills were common throughout the Cairngorms, and the names can still be seen on Ordinance Survey maps even today. There was once a wooded fairy knoll at Fincastle (Gordon, 1949), and Sithean Dubh da Choimhead in Glen More was said to be a fairy hill (Affleck, 1987) though the reason behind the name has been forgotten. I visited this particular hill and it does appear strangely conical and pointed, very unusual.
Sithean Dubh da Choimhead in Glen More
The fairies of Glen Avon lived in “fairy turrets”, dwellings of very large dimensions with lights shining through crevices in the rocks. Two men passing by one heard the “most exquisite sounds ever emitted by a fiddle-string” (Stewart, 1823). Stewart describes fairy turrets as composed of stones in the shape of irregular turrets, resembling masses of rocks or earthen hillocks. Their doors, windows, smoke-vents, and other conveniences, are so artfully constructed, as to be invisible to the naked eye in day-light, though in dark nights splendid lights are frequently reflected through their invisible casements”.
The fairies of Glen More were said to milk deer and wash their clothing in Lochan Uaine, so causing the water to appear a wonderful greenish tinge (Forsyth, 1900). After visiting the loch I can confirm that the water is indeed a beautiful and mysterious green colour, as shown in the photos below:
Lochan Uaine, where the fairies wash their clothing
Glen More was also said to be home to the King of Fairies himself, Big Donald. There are fairy hills, or sithean, at both ends of Loch Morlich but those at the west end are his abode (Forsyth, 1900). MacGregor only mentions one faery knowe and describes it as the meeting place of the fairy folk of Rothiemurchus and the Braes of Abernethy, and tells this story:
“Not so long ago a man, who was in the habit of boasting that he had no illusions about faeries and the like, was passing by this loch, when he heard the sound of distant bagpipes. As the sound drew nearer to him, he began to look around him for the piper. But, nearer and nearer and louder and louder though the piping came, there was no sign anywhere of the player. So close to him came the music eventually that he actually stepped aside, so as to allow the invisible piper to pass.”
He claimed he felt the gusts of wind on his cheeks that were issuing from the drones of the bagpipes, and when he told his friends they were of the opinion he had heard the faery bagpipes, played by none other than Big Donald himself (MacGregor, 1937).
Another time, when homes were lit by fir torches instead of paraffin oil, people from the lowlands came to this area to gather fir from the forest. They stayed with crofters and grazed horses on their land, but Donald considered them a nuisance and wanted them gone. One day, whilst gathering fir, they were suddenly aware of a gigantic figure that began pelting them with sticks and stones. They fled in a panic and didn’t return again to the glen (Gray, 1987).
The west end of Loch Morlich, home to Big Donald
A fairy hill at the west end of Loch Morlich
The Cairngorm fairies are very fond of music. A farmer in Strathspey was singing while he sowed a field, and whether it was the singing or seed that attracted her, a fairy damsel of great beauty and elegance introduced herself to the farmer. She requested he sing a particular song, “Nighan Donne na Bual”, and afterwards she asked for some of his corn. He asked what he would be offered in return, and she said if he granted her request then his seed would never fail him. He granted her request and sure enough, no matter how much he sowed his bag of seed never got less full. Unfortunately his good luck ended when his rather nosey wife accosted him with her suspicions, ending the spell (Stewart, 1823).
Fairy music was also heard in the higher mountain regions of the Cairngorms. In the late 1940s and early 50s, Hugh Welsh, a stalwart of the Cairngorm Club and believer in the supernatural, reported hearing fairy music coming from rocks in Coire Sputan Dearg, high up Ben Macdui (Watson, 2011)
As in other areas of Scotland, there was a need for human midwives to deliver fairy babies in the Cairngorms too. One midwife found a stranger on horseback knocking at her door late one night asking for her assistance. He reassured her “though I am conducting you to a fairy habitation to assist a fairy lady in distress, be not dismayed, I beseech you; for, I promise you by all that is sacred, you shall sustain no injury, but will be safely restored to your dwelling when your business is effected, with such boon or present as you shall choose to ask or accept of”. After she helped the fairy lady to give birth she chose as her boon that whomever she attended in child birth should have a safe and speedy delivery (Stewart, 1823).
Murdoch Mackenzie was a weaver and midwife and was said to possess a gift in his family that came from the fairies for some service rendered to them. During labour he would stroke a patient’s hand and take the labour pains on himself, leaving him rolling and roaring in agony (Forsyth, 1900).
It seems human healers were also in demand. Dame Aliset was asked to heal a fairy child by a four foot tall man wearing old fashioned clothing. She fetched healing waters from a well and used them to cure the child, and in return the fairies offered her great gifts, which she refused and only asked that they reward her with their friendship. However they did give extra powers to the healing well, and it is said that anyone who washes there can receive their youth again if only they wish for it (Swire, 1963).
Trading with the Fairies
An unusual method of trading with the fairies seems to have been discovered in the Cairngorms area. If you see a fairy carrying something you wish to acquire, you need only repeat these words ”mine to you, yours to me”, and throw something in return to the fairy. It seems they cannot refuse the trade! A hunter of Glen More acquired a set of jewelled silver pipes in this unfair manner, but the fairies had the last laugh. When he returned home he found they had turned to blades of grass and an empty puff-ball (Forsyth, 1900).
Robin Og had a similar experience at the Sithean of Big Donald, King of the Fairies, who was known for his fairy pipes. When passing the sithean one day he flung his bonnet in the air and whispered in gaelic “Is leat-sa so; is leam-sa sin! – This is yours; that is mine!” and in exchange for his bonnet a tiny set of bagpipes fell at his feet. But of course when he returned home he found only willow-reeds and a puff ball (MacGregor, 1937).
It seems trading with fairies can save lives too. John Roy of Glenbrown in Abernethy threw his bonnet at the fairies and shouted “Sluis sho slumus sheen (mine is yours, yours is mine)” and when they abandoned their booty it was “a fine fresh lady, who, from her dress and language appeared to be a Sasonach” (That English lady from Outlander really does turn up everywhere!). She lived with John for several years and he treated her with the utmost tenderness, but one day an English Captain and his son visited and the son recognised her as his mother, who they believed to have died, but a stock had been left in her place. She recognised them too and happily returned home with them (Stewart, 1823).
Fairies and Burning Mills
Quite unusual are the Cairngorm tales of fairies and burnt mills. Strong Malcolm of Duthil worked as a miller and was helped by a band of little men whom nobody ever saw and few ever heard. Malcolm left meal in the hopper before bed and the men would work hard all night and in the morning he would find the meal in the bags. If any fool entered the mill at night an unseen power would kick him in the rear and when he got up, usually with a broken and bleeding nose, he would find the mill silent and in darkness. One night, as the little men were busy in the mill, the kiln of Tullochgriban caught fire and the little men were heard to exclaim “we will have plenty of meal now, and sowens too, for Tullochgriban kiln is on fire, and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself, or starve” and the little men never returned again (MacDougall, 1910).
Another mill burning took place in Delnabo. A fairy woman resided in the turrets of Craig-ail-naic, and one day she called on one of the tenant’s wives and requested the loan of a firlot of oatmeal to feed her family. She promised to return it soon as she was expecting a considerable supply. The tenant’s wife agreed, not wanting to anger the fairy, and after sharing a dram with some bread and cheese, they went to get the oatmeal. Once outside the fairy suddenly told the wife that she did not need the oatmeal after all, as she was now supplied as expected, and off she went. The wife was not surprised when she observed a few minutes later the corn-kiln of an adjacent farm engulfed in flames (Stewart, 1823).
I wonder if fairies stole the corn and oats and set fire to the mills, or perhaps the burnt corn and oats now belong to the fairies as they have burnt and ‘died’ and are no longer of the human world? Perhaps like ritual offerings being burnt or destroyed as an offering to the gods? There is much to ponder here, and I’d love to hear any reader’s thoughts on this and any similar stories they have read.
Fairy dogs also seem to be more common in the Cairngorms than in other areas of Scotland. They were usually green in colour, and although not evil, their third bark was a death omen unless you had the courage to kill it after the first bark. Though, hearing even one dark was considered to bring ill luck. Human dogs were said to howl miserably and flatten themselves to the ground at the approach of a fairy dog. A green fairy dog once roamed the area around Ruthven Castle, and it was seen by several within the memory of those living fifty years ago. This was the last fairy dog to be seen, and they are now said to be extinct in the Highlands (Swire, 1963).
A shepherd was sitting one evening in his remote cottage, far up in the hills, when he heard scratching. Thinking it was his own dog wanting to be let in he opened the door, but in walked a green dog with golden eyes and crimson ears, and it went and lay down by the fire. He felt very nervous, knowing that a fairy dog made for a chancy companion, especially in a remote cottage at night, but he knew better than to disturb it. He placed food and water near the great hound and it drank well but refused the food. Then his own dog scrabbled at the door and when he let it in it saw the creature by the fire, and flattened down in terror. The fairy dog made a strange sound in its throat, but not a bark, and moved over to let the shepherd’s dog near the fire. The shepherd’s dog guardedly came to the fire and ate its supper and lay down under its master’s chair, and there they spent the night. At dawn, the green dog rose, shook itself, and walked to the door. The shepherd quickly opened it and to his surprise the fairy dog licked his hand before leaving. That winter, when his own dog had hurt its paw and was unable to assist him, the shepherd found himself in trouble. The snow was deep one night and at dawn he set out to dig his sheep out of the snow and gather them safely, but he was an old man and without his dog he had great difficulty and knew his sheep would die if he couldn’t reach them. Suddenly he noticed the green dog, and he knew his time was up as he waited to hear the customary three barks. Much to his surprise the dog licked his hand and then threw back its head and bayed, and the moor came alive with fiery-eyed green dogs. They ran back and forth, gathering the sheep, and when one found a buried sheep it waited until the shepherd arrived to dig it out. Then he was led to a small sheltered corrie where he found his whole herd grazing contentedly with green dogs on guard. The great hound led him back to his cottage, licked his hand once more, and the man bent to pat his head but found nothing but empty air (Gray, 1987).
An old cottage at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore
Some believed that fairy dogs were a fairy creature, and others believed that the fairies were not satisfied with the breed they had and were always trying to obtain their own strain, as suggested in the following story. A man named Calum near Loch Guinach was in great trouble. The children were crying out with hunger and nothing he did went right. With great despair he one day decided to drown himself in the loch, in the hope that someone would take pity on his widow and children and provide for them better than he could. He was removing his boots and coat, so they could identify his body, when between him and the water he saw a beautiful woman. He found himself confiding in her his troubles, and she told him to go home and he would find all well if he agreed to one condition, that he meet her here again in a year and a day and give her whatever or whoever first meets him tonight when he returns home. Calum agreed, remembering that he had a lamb tethered by his door after its mother died, and being sure that it would be the first to greet him. However, as he approached the house his wife flung open the door, eager to tell him of their new good fortune, and his children rushed out to greet him. But before they could reach him, his dog sprang out and ran over, jumping up to lick his face. A year passed and Calum, now a well-to-do farmer, could not bear to condemn his beloved dog to the fairies and confided in his wife. She urged him to offer back all the fortune they had been given so she would spare the dog, and she did but she refused, saying that if she took back all her gifts then that would include his life. He even offered her all of his other beasts instead, but still she refused. As if sensing the dilemma, his dog left him and approached the fairy, crawling in fear. The fairy spoke gently to it and the dog rose and licked Calum’s hand, before heading back to the fairy. She told Calum to meet her again in a year, and then vanished. Calum returned a year later as asked and there saw the fairy, his dog, and with her was the finest puppy he had ever seen. His dog came to greet him, bounding and wagging her tail happily and the fairy smiled and said she was the best dog in all of the world. She told Calum that he would only see his dog once again, when it was time for him to die, but the puppy was now his to take home. He took the pup home and it was a wonderful dog, though it retained some fairy characteristics and all of its offspring had silvery eyes and could “see wind as light-eyed dogs should”. Many years later as Calum went to his sheepfold he met his old dog, and it barked three times, then he patted its head and it licked his hand one final time. Then Calum knew his time had come and three days later he died (Swire, 1963).
One final unusual tale tells of a hunter looking after a litter of puppies given to him by a demon. The demon collects all but one of the pups, and for some unknown reason breaks the leg of the remaining pup and leaves it with the hunter, who names him Brodainn. The hunter later decided to hunt the white fairy deer of Ben Alder, and it ran away with Brodainn in hot pursuit. Just as the hound was gaining on the deer, it ran straight into the loch, and they both disappeared forever (MacBain, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol xvi , 1890). The loch became known as Loch Vrodin, and today it appears on Ordinance Survey maps as Loch Bhrodainn.
Fairies, Deer, and Milking
The fairies of the Cairngorms were infamous for their milking of deer in the mountains. A herder in the Monadh-Liath Mountains north west of Kingussie was wandering in search of goats when he heard a sweet song and saw a fairy milking a deer. He shot at her, hitting the milk cog, and in defeat she bestowed upon him his first three desires and told him where to find his goats (T.S., The Celtic Magazine, vol xii, 1887). The Glaistig, however, preferred the same milk as humans. She was a thin grey little woman, dressed in green and with long yellow hair that reached to the ground. In Rothiemurchus, milk was poured each night into a hollow stone known as the Clach na Gruagaich, and at night she would come and drink the milk. Unless this was done, no milk was to be had at the next milking (Gordon, 1949).
Also associated with milking and deer was the Cailleach. The ruins of the dwelling of Cailleach Bheathrach could be found on the Morrone hills, and it is said that her “milch cows were the hinds of the forest” (Gordon, 1949).
A curious deer at Insh Marshes
Changelings and Kidnappings
Unfortunately this area of Scotland was greatly at risk of kidnappings by the fairies. They were particularly fond of newly born babies, children, and mothers who had just given birth. Two Strathspey whiskey sellers were returning from visiting their friend when they found a little child abandoned on the road, and on closer inspection they recognised it as none other than the child of the goodwife they had just visited. On their visit they had heard the babe crying pitifully and the goodwife had blessed it as she raised it from the cradle, and it seems this child had been a changeling or stock and the blessing had caused the fairies to abandon the real child which they had taken. When the men returned the child to its rightful home a fortnight later the goodwife told them that the (changeling) child under her care had become suddenly ill last night and death was certain, and when the men began creating a fire the changeling took the hint and flew away out of the smoke-hole (Stewart, 1823).
Important measures were taken to prevent the theft of children by fairies. It was said that suspending the child’s head downwards, when it was dressed in the morning, is an excellent preservative from all forms of supernatural being. Alternatively, a red thread was tied about its neck (don’t try this one at home!) or a rowan cross was worn (Stewart, 1823).
If a child is stolen by the fairies and a stock left in its place, the stock should be taken to the junction of three shires, or the confluence of three rivers, and it should be left there for the night. If the child had indeed been stolen by the fairies, then they would return it in the night and take away the stock (Stewart, 1823). A woman in Abernethy said that as a child she was found rather unaccountably one night on the outside of a window, so her parents believed she must have been taken by the fairies and a stock left as her substitute. They took the child to the junction of the shires of Inverness, Moray and Banff and left her alone there for the night. Luckily they had wrapped her up warmly in a blanket and she suffered no ill effects or injuries, and her parents were satisfied with the result.
The fairies would also steal grown adults too. A woman who lived at the farm of Tom of Cluny in Strathtay disappeared one day and reappeared a fortnight later, claiming she had been carried away by the fairies and made to cut peats for them on the nearby moors. As proof of this she produced a spade only 15 inches in length (Macgregor, 1937). A likely story indeed!
Livestock were at risk of fairy kidnapping too. A farmer at Auchriachan farm in Strathavon was searching for his goats on a remote hill in Glenlivet when he became lost as darkness approached. Spying a twinkling light in the distance, he headed towards it, but much to his dismay found the place looking wild and horrible, as if a human had never set foot there. He resolved to spend the night there and upon entering he saw, much to his horror, an old female acquaintance whose funeral he had recently attended. She ran over and ushered him to a quiet corner off the main room, telling him that he was done for unless she could hide him until he could make his escape. He hid and saw “an immense concourse of fairies”, who cried out for food, and spoke badly of him, calling him a miserly fellow who never leaves them their dues. They described how they were powerless against his usual safeguards but tonight his family had forgotten so they were free to take his favourite ox and his wife’s bannocks. The farmer watched as they killed his ox and cooked it, and while they were distracted the housekeeper helped him escape from “Mr Rhymer’s council-chamber”. The references in this story to Thomas the Rhymer are most bizarre considering how far we are from the Scottish Borders, his usual stomping ground. The farmer returned home and killed the stock the fairies left in place of his ox, and it rolled down the hill where it lay uneaten as neither cat nor dog would touch it (Stewart, 1823).
When a human catches a fairy, if they are bold and brave they should ask for wishes to be granted. Big Meg of Ruthven caught a fairy at the tree clad fairy knoll near the house as it washed its clothes in the stream. It could not go invisible due to its lack of clothing, and she had little difficulty in catching it. In return for its freedom it offered to grant Meg three wishes, and she chose sons (as she had daughters and no sons), the skills to be a good spinner, and for her cows to be good milkers and carry quey calves. The fairy granted her wishes and picked up her clothing and immediately disappeared. In the course of time Meg bore seven sons, became an expert spinner, and the cows were noted for their good quality milk and quey calves (Gray, 1987). It’s probably not advisable to catch fairies though, any failed attempts are likely to result in a very bad outcome!
Should you lose a friend to a fairy hill, there’s no use returning right away as the hill will remain closed until a year later (Taylor, 1869). Some say the right time to return is a year and a day later, wearing a rowan cross for protection (Stewart, 1823).
A rather permanent protection from the fairies can be gained by eating a very special cheese. You must go the summit of a cliff or mountain where no species of quadruped has ever fed or trod, and there gather the herb in the Gaelic language called “Mohan”. This herb you must feed to a cow, and then make a cheese from the milk produced, and whoever eats this cheese will be given protection from “every species of fairy agency” (Stewart, 1823). I have been unable to find out which plant this is, but if anyone knows I would love to hear from you.
Other methods of protection from fairies include putting fir on the crook in the chimney (Taylor, 1869), a piece of fir torch carried about the person (Stewart, 1823), planting stonecrop in the thatch of a house or planting a rowan tree nearby (Forsyth, 1900), crossing the first bannock so the fairies cannot eat them (Stewart, 1823), leaving ragwort growing around the margins of a field so the fairies would ride the ragwort stalks instead of the farmer’s horses (Swire, 1963), and a knife made from iron which has never been applied to any purpose (Stewart, 1823).
Ironically, a fairy bolt was also said to protect the possessor from the fatal effects of the fairies for as long as he keeps it on his person. The irony being, the fairy bolt was usually found embedded in the dead body of a cow or an unfortunate human (Stewart, 1823).
Brownies of the Cairngorms
There are quite a few stories of brownies in the Cairngorms, but most are attributed to a certain pair of infamous brownies, most often known as Mag Mulloch and Brownie Clod.
When mention is made of Mag, few authors fail to mention her unusual hair. Shaw tells that she has been seen in the evening as a young girl whose left hand was all hairy, and that she instantly disappeared (Shaw, 1827). Henderson rather unkindly refers to her as “Hairy Hand” and says she was supposed to come down the chimney and take children away (Henderson, 1911). These stories almost give the impression of her being a ghost or bogie of some sort, but Sir Walter Scott refers to her as a familiar attendant upon the clan Grant and calls her “May Moulach” a female figure whose left hand and arm were covered with hair (Scott, 1802).
Confusingly, MacGregor describes Mag Mulloch as having exceptionally long hair, and gives a male gender, describing how he would attend the laird’s table and supervise the dairy. He would also escort the laird of Tullochgorm home over the dark moors in the small hours when he had too much to drink and the brownie would then appear as a small boy carrying a lantern (MacGregor, 1937).
Stewart gives her a “super abundance of hair” and describes Hairy Mag, or Maug Vuluchd, as an honest and excellent house keeper but disliked by the female-servants as she would report any neglect of their duties to their master and mistress. Whenever someone at the table called for anything she floated it over the air to them invisibly and lighted it on the table with the utmost care and ease, much to the amusement of guests (Stewart, 1823).
Stewart also describes her as one of the last two brownies known in this quarter of the highlands, appendages of the ancient family of Tullochgorm in Strathspey, and names the other as a male brownie called Brownie Clod. “They were male and female, and, for aught we know, they might likewise have been man and wife”.
Brownie Clod is described as having a humorous disposition, indulging in little sports at the expense of his fellow servants, and as having a great trick of flinging clods at people. He once made an agreement with the servants of Tullochgorm to thrash as much corn as two men could in the whole winter, and in payment he was to receive an old coat and a Kilmarnock cowel. But the foolish servants felt pity for him and out of gratitude gave the clothing to him before he had finished, and he refused to thrash another sheaf (Stewart, 1823).
A very early but brief mention of these infamous characters can be found in Aubrey’s Miscellanies upon various subjects (1784) where in an account of a man named James Mack Coil-vicalaster alias Grant in Glenbeum (who is said to have second sight) a brief mention is made of him seeing things that others could not see, including “Brownie and Meg Mulloch”. The author adds that they are two ghosts of old who haunt a family in Strathspey of the name of Grant, who appear in the likeness of a young lass and lad.
Of course, Mag and Brownie Clod were not the only brownies in the Cairngorms. Bodach an Duin of Rothiemurchus was another infamous brownie, and was also known as Bodach an Don, or the Ghost of the Dune (Shaw, 1827). When the Grants of Rothiemurchus displaced the Shaws, he was said to have chanted a Gaelic rhyme and left his old home and instead spent his days guarding the tomb of the Shaws in Rothiemurchus churchyard (Gordon, 1949). MacGregor describes the brownie as the invisible protector of the fortunes of the Grants of Rothiemurchus and tells how he stayed behind when the family deserted the old Doune and moved to the new one. At night he was said to assist the maids with their domestic duties by tidying the fire places, sweeping soot from the chimneys, and tinkering the pots and pans, and in return he was given a bowl of cream each day. One night he was clinking and clunking so loudly that the laird shouted down “stop that infernal din, and let decent folk sleep!” and the next morning the maids found the brownie had left his work half done and he was never seen at Rothiemurchus again, though his invisible visits were said to account for milk and cream disappearing from the dairy. Some say you can still hear him at work in the interior of a nearby mound if you place your ear to it. Interestingly, the author points out that this old mound seems to show signs of being a prehistoric structure (MacGregor, 1937).
So what does a brownie look like, you may be wondering. According to Stewart, “His person was not quite so tall as that of the Fairy, but it was well proportioned and comely; and, from the peculiar brownness of his complexion, he received the appellation of Brownie” (Stewart,1823). In 1843 a baby with peculiar features was said to have been born with unusually long dark hair, and an old lady was said to have exclaimed at first sight of it “Eh, sirs! It’s the brounie come back again!” (MacGregor, 1937).
Kelpies, Water Horses and River Spirits
The rivers that weave their wicked way through the Cairngorms were well known for their dangers and fatalities. The Spey was said to demand at least one life a year, and was said to be home to a variety of water horses and kelpies including a deadly white kelpie who was most often seen on boisterous thundery nights (Macgregor, 1937). An earlier source tells that the river Spey was spoken of as a “she” and bears the character of being bloodthirsty (Gregor, 1892).
Poll nan Craobhan, a pool on the river Spey, was home to a black water-horse with a coat as black and glossy as the raven’s wing. Any man or woman who was fool enough to mount him would not live long enough to regret their action, as he would spring as quick as an arrow from the bow and plunge into the water, killing all he carried. He wasn’t seen again until a year and a day had passed. A man named Little John, with advice from the black wife of Alnaic, managed to tame the beast one Beltane’s eve. He crept up wearing the skin of an ox and grabbed the water horse’s bridle, forcing it to obey his every command. Unfortunately one day his daughter decided to ride the horse and unknowingly used its own bridle, and it plunged headlong into the nearest loch, and neither girl or horse were ever seen again (MacDougall, 1910).
This same location is also mentioned in an old rhyme that the water-kelpie would sing to his unfortunate victims (Macgregor, 1937, gives source as Banff field club journal 1884):
“Sit weel, Janety, or ride weel Davie,
For this time the morn ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
MacDougall explains that Pot Cravie is the lowland form of the name “Poll na Craobhan”, and another source associates a very similar rhyme with a tale of a white kelpie or water horse who offered a ride to a couple returning from market and when they accepted its offer and mounted it set off at a trot, singing (Henderson, 1910):
“And ride weel ,Davie
And by this night at ten o’clock
Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”
There was also said to be a yellow water-horse in the Spey, who at one time only carried away girls but later changed its habits and began taking couples (Gray, 1987).
The water horse at Loch Pityoulish near Coylum Bridge preferred to take children as his victims. The heir to the Barony of Kincardine was playing with his young friends by the shore of the loch when they spotted a beautiful steed with a silver jewel encrusted saddle and bridle. In great excitement the children ran over and grasped at the bridle. At once the great steed galloped off towards the loch, with the children stuck fast to the bridle being dragged behind. The heir was a bright young lad and a fast thinker and managed to grab his dirk and sever his fingers, freeing himself just in time to escape the terrible drowning that awaited his friends (Forsyth, 1900). Since that day the local folk have been wary of the loch, especially avoiding the sunken crannog where the water-horse was said to live (MacGregor, 1937). Swire adds that it was said to be a white highland pony that lived in this loch, and it has been known to carry off as many as nine children at a time (Swire, 1963).
Loch Pityoulish, home to a deadly Water Horse
Another sinister water creature could be found at Loch Garten, now more famous for its Ospreys. This “large carnivorous water-monster – a cross between a huge bull and a large stallion” used to haunt the burn and dark woods between Loch Garten and Loch Mallache. It wandered forth at night, with glistening eyes and jet black mane, and its roars were heard echoing through the hills. Its meal of choice was said to be children and lambs. An old crofter once tried to catch it and attached one end of a rope to a boulder and the other he baited with a hook and lamb, and although he heard furious roaring and a tremendous storm that night when he returned in the morning there was no trace of the monster or the rock, just a deep rut where the boulder had been dragged into the water (Robertson, 1961).
Not all kelpies were deadly, a kelpie in Braemar took a liking to a woman near the mill of Quoich and when she ran out of meal the kelpie stole some for her from a nearby mill. Unfortunately for him, the miller saw a mysterious tall man leaving his mill with a sack of meal on his back and hurled a fairy-whorl at him, breaking his leg. He fell in the river Dee and drowned, an ironic end for a kelpie perhaps (Gregor, Folklore Journal vol 7, no 3 1889). MacGregor’s Peat Fire Flame (1937) explains that the whorl was used to prevent fairies from setting the mill in motion, and reports that the kelpie in question was known for making love to women of the countryside!
Another helpful kelpie appeared when a man was stranded at Garchory mill and couldn’t take his meal home. He vented “Ma wife an bairns ‘ill be a’ stervt for wint o’ mehl afore I win hame. I wis (wish) I hed any kyne (kind) o’ a behst, although it war (were) a water kelpie”. Sure enough a horse appeared and carried his meal home as he walked next to it, and once he had unloaded it at his house the horse plunged into a big pool of the Don (Gregor, Folklore Journal vol 7, no 3 1889).
Despite being said to require three lives a year (Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 3 no 1 1892), the Dee also had a more gentle side. A basket maker slipped into the Linn O’Dee and was drowned but the search for his body proved unsuccessful. His distraught window knelt by the river bank and prayed to the river deity to return her dead husband to her, and threw his plaid into the river. The next morning she found his body by the edge of the Linn, wrapped in his plaid (Macgregor, 1937).
When a man was drowned in the Don at Inverurie and the body could not be found, a local woman of uncanny disposition told them to throw a soft biscuit into the river at the point where the fatality had occurred. This was done and as the biscuit drifted down stream, it sunk at the exact place where the body could be found. The gift of the biscuit was thought to appease the river spirit, who then allowed the body to return to the surface (Macgregor, 1937).
The river Don was also home to a kelpie, and a nearby boulder was known as the Kelpie’s Stane. Legend tells that a man travelling to a relative’s death bed became stuck by a river after a torrent had washed away the bridge at Luib. A tall man suddenly appeared and volunteered to carry him across, but mid-river the stranger turned back into a horse and tried to drag him down to the river bed. The victim managed to escape, but as he scrambled to the bank the kelpie hurled a boulder at him, which afterwards became known as the Kelpie’s Stane (Macgregor, 1937).
Never trust a lone horse in the Cairngorms
Another blood thirsty spirit was said to live in Lochan-nan-Deann between Gorgarff and Tomintoul, and when the men of the town tried to drain the loch to find him a terrific yell was heard and a diminutive creature with a red cap came from the loch, and threw the men’s picks and spades into the loch as the men fled in terror. He disappeared back into the water as it “boiled and heaved as red as blood” (Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 3 no 1 1892).
The Little Grey Man, guardian of the well of the Grey Wood, was another deadly water spirit. If you didn’t leave an offering of a pin or other metal object at his well when you took a drink, then next time you visited the well you would be hunted until you died of thirst (Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 3 no 1 1892).
Not all well spirits were so terrifying, though many did demand an offering. The spirit of the kettle stone on Allargue Estate in Corgaff was partial to gold, and if an offering was left then the 3 springs would cure blindness, deafness, and lameness. He wasn’t completely harmless though, if you tried to rob his gold then death would soon follow (Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 3 no 1 1892).
Fairies are also sometimes associated with wells. There was said to be a well about a mile from Kingussie where pins and gifts were left for the fairies and a wish was made. If the little people approved of the gift they would grant the wish, but once someone threw in a broken button and his wish was reversed by the angry fairies with disastrous results (Swire, 1963). I did search for this well whilst in Kingussie and from the description of it being before the loch comes into view, I believe it to be north of Kingussie and perhaps in the area of the golf course. Do any locals know of such a well?
I’ll leave you with some final advice for those wishing to gain the favour of the fairies. It is said that all liquids spilled on the ground belong to the fairies (Stewart, 1823), so don’t forget to give the fairies a share of your whiskey or tipple of choice next time you’re in Scotland, and leave a little milk out for the brownies and glaistig too.
Forsyth (1900) In the Shadow of Cairngorm
Gordon (1949) Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands
Gray (1987) Legends of the Cairngorms
Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 7 no 3 1889, Kelpie Stories
Gregor, Folklore Journal, vol 3 no 1 1892, Guardian Spirits of Wells and Lochs
Henderson (1911) Survivals in Belief Among the Celts
MacBain, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol xvi , 1890, Badenoch: It’s history, clans and place names
MacBain (1922) Place Names Highlands & Islands of Scotland
MacDougall (1910) Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English
MacGillivray (1855) The Natural History of Dee Side and Braemar
MacGregor (1937) The Peat Fire Flame
MacGregor (1937) The Peat Fire Flame
Macpherson, Highland Monthly vol 1, 1889-90, The Old Church and Churchyard of Kingussie
Robertson (1961) Selected Highland Tales
Scott (1802) Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Volume 1
Shaw (1827) The History of the Province of Moray
Sinton (1906) The Poetry of Badenoch
Stewart (1823) The Popular Superstitions and Festive Amusements of the Highlanders of Scotland
Swire (1963) The Highlands and their Legends
Taylor (1869) The Braemar Highlands: Their Tales, Traditions and History
T.S., The Celtic Magazine, vol xii, 1887, Snatches of Song collected in Badenoch
Watson (2011) It’s a Fine Day for the Hill