The season of all things ghoulish and peculiar is about to cast its spell on us. Thought to have its origins in an ancient Celtic festival when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off wandering ghosts, Halloween is a fitting time to explore tales of superstition and the supernatural.
We do enjoy scaring ourselves with the unexplained or unknown as well as the downright creepy. Much folklore is based on real people and incidents that happened or were believed to have happened! Strange stories centre on rural life, forests, hills and lochs; so it is little surprise that the Cairngorms National Park is brimming with myth and legend. Come on, delve in, if you dare!
Spooks and Phantoms – Witches and Faeries
Beware The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui, a mythical creature fabled to haunt Britain’s second highest mountain. Over the years, countless climbers have seen or sensed a presence; something extraordinary and terrifying in the wilderness. But, could this eerie spectacle be ‘broken spectre’; a phenomenon in high mountain areas when the sun is low, where gaps in the clouds enable people to see their own magnified shadow cast upon the clouds?
The Water Kelpie, a horse-like creature was rumoured to haunt Scottish lochs and rivers and lure unsuspecting humans to catastrophe in the cold waters. Loch Pityoulish, near Aviemore, was thought to have been a haunt of the shape-shifting kelpie. It was here that a kelpie was said to have carried off and drowned nine children, who were attracted by the ‘pretty pony’. And the moral of the story? “Things are not always what they appear”.
Then there is the Bodach, or Spirit, which once frequented Loch Garten and surrounds, including the ominously named Loch Mallachie (Loch of the Curse). The phantom would appear as a glowing gigantic white entity, roaming the countryside at night, warning anyone he met, with a high pitched scream, of approaching death. But, could the startling cries simply be passing wildfowl or the moanings of the loch? Flights of waterfowl in the eerie solitude of darkness and shadows of the forest could provide the answer as could the unearthly groaning, audible in winter, when the loch’s ice starts to melt and trapped air tries to escape.
Loch Morlich holds another watery tale. The west side of the loch was believed to be home to the King of the Fairies while the east was guarded by The Spectre of the Bloody Hand – a gigantic figure of an old man, in Highland warrior dress, one hand dripping with blood, who challenged anyone he met with a fight to the death. By contrast he was a champion of animals, being a guardian of deer and other wild creatures!
Stories involving beasts were commonplace. For example, in mythology, the Cat Sìth is a fairy creature, or sometimes a witch, resembling a large black cat that haunts the Highlands. The legends surrounding this apparition appear to have been inspired by the black Kellas cat, a cross between a domestic cat and a wildcat. Plants and trees too possessed special attributes. The rowan tree, for example, protected against witchcraft. The colour red was considered the best protection against enchantment, so the rowan with its vivid autumn berries, is an understandable choice. The rowan symbolised a Faerie tree also because of its white flowers.
Castles and Ghosts – Hauntings and Treasure
Kindrochit, the first castle in Braemar, dates back to the 11th century and has many accounts of haunting by plague victims. Legend tells too of a soldier who was lowered into its well to find treasure, only to be greeted by ghosts having a party. Corgarff Castle, is said to be haunted following an atrocity in which tens of women, children and servants perished in a fire. The infamous ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ who is associated with many castles and forts in the Cairngorms National Park, sparked off many a yarn. It was said that he and his followers practiced witchcraft in the dark hours, but retribution came on night as he played a game of poker with the Devil. Castle Roy, one of Scotland’s oldest forts, is surrounded in mystery. Some say that treasure is buried there however the soil is believed to be infected with plague and all those who have searched for treasure have perished! There are stories of a secret passageway connecting the castle to the Old Kirk close by and the castle is rumoured to have its own ghost, which appears during the summer solstice. Nearby, a small loch near Balliefurth is said to contain treasure also but, as it is guarded by a monster, efforts to find it have been in vain!