Scottish myths: Did the Devil once hide in Smoo Cave?

The mystical Smoo Cave.
The mystical Smoo Cave.
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NEAR the village of Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline, lies the haunting Smoo Cave.

A huge limestone cavern, and the largest coastal cave in the UK, Smoo Cave is also the setting for many local legends.

The entrance to Smoo Cave. Picture: VisitScotland

The entrance to Smoo Cave. Picture: VisitScotland

Set into limestone cliffs, the cave is over 200ft long, and has an unusual geological formation and rich archaeological history which attracts over 43,000 visitors a year.

Among the more peculiar local myths is that of Donald of MacKay, also known as the Wizard of Reay.

Legend has it that Sir Donald, a shady man with a colourful past including adultery and bigamy, was actually a wizard in the Dark Arts.

It is even said that while serving as a soldier in the late 16th century, he met with the devil himself and was invited to study at the notorious Black School of Padua.

As a forfeit for his teachings, the devil demanded the last man to leave his class should be left as a sacrifice to him

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Despite being the unlucky one last out the door, MacKay turned to the devil and shouted the spell ‘De’il tak’ the hindmost’, meaning he would instead leave his shadow behind.

The devil then seized half of his apprentice’s shadow before realising he’d been tricked.

Even though he escaped, the now shadowless MacKay was pursued by the devil, and when one day MacKay went to explore Smoo Cave, the devil caught wind of his plans and sneaked in first, lying in wait.

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After entering the cave, MacKay was warned by his terrified dog about what fate awaited him.

Holding back, MacKay hid until the light of day, when the Devil was left powerless and forced to create holes in the roof of the cave so he could flee with his three witch sidekicks.

This is said to be the origins of the holes through which the Smoo Burn runs into caverns.

Other accounts say that while exploring the cave, MacKay came across a small wooden cask and filled with curiosity, pulled out the plug and out crawled a tiny man 5cm in height.

The man quickly grew into a giant and turned out to be the devil who cried out “Well now Donald, what are you going to do now”, before MacKay again managed to escape.

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