Selkies and kelpies: The fairytale degree

Postgraduate course in Scottish folklore to investigate country's ancient myths

DO YOU fear alien abduction, witchcraft, monsters under the bed or even the bogeyman?

Then you are not alone – similar stories have been handed down for generations, with many tales used as an attempt to explain the unexplainable.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Legends and folk tales from years gone by have always proved popular in history lessons, so now Glasgow University is launching the first degree in Scottish folklore at its campus in Dumfries.

The postgraduate masters course contains modules on animal myths, witch beliefs and hunts, storytelling and ballads.

Topics on the curriculum include the mythical selkies – creatures that could transform themselves from seal to human form and back again by putting on or removing their skin.

Tales once abounded of a man who found a beautiful female selkie sunbathing on a beach, stole her skin and forced her to become his wife and bear his children, only for her to find the skin years later and escape back to seal form and the sea.

Another traditional Scottish myth is that of the kelpie – a breed of water horse that enticed people to ride on its back, then took them down to a watery grave.

The kelpie would appear to victims as a lost dark grey or white pony but could be identified by its constantly dripping mane.

Dr Lizanne Henderson, the course leader, said these myths reflected a cultural fear of water in an age when many lived by the coast but were unable to swim.

As a result, a terror of the deep held by fishermen was passed down through the generations and gained mythological status.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ms Henderson said much Scottish folklore existed as an attempt to explain events people couldn't understand.

She said: "They were cultural explanations of unexplainable phenomena.

"A particularly good example was if someone died suddenly. It was quite a common explanation to say they were taken away by the fairies."

A baby's congenital deformity was often blamed on fairies, who, it was said, would steal a baby and leave a "changeling" fairy child in its place.

Ms Henderson said: "People were trying to explain what wasn't of their reality."

She said an accusation of witchcraft was often an attempt to explain crop failure or why a cow had stopped producing milk.

She said: "We still do this – it is trying to relate to our world.

"Most people don't believe in fairies any more, but some of the myths surrounding them, such as dressing in green and abducting people, live on in the beliefs that people are abducted by aliens. This is a belief that has been brought up to date."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Fears were often manipulated to control a community; for example, tales of a vicious monster in the woods would ensure that no-one ventured into a dangerous area.

A study of the Loch Ness monster or the bogeyman could form part of the course.

Dr Henderson said: "We could set a task of asking what childhood myths you were told."

She added: "What is curious about the Loch Ness monster myth is that it isn't that old. The first recorded incident of anybody seeing it was St Columba in the 6th century.

"He saved a monk from the monster, which then disappeared under the water, but then there is no mention of the monster until the beginning of the 20th century, when the road was built alongside.

"Some stories say the dynamite used to make the road woke the monster up."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish tourism body Visit Scotland said the country's folklore was a key asset.

She said: "Scottish folklore is an important draw for visitors, particularly from overseas.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We use the mystery and legends of Scotland in much of our marketing, including our 1 million European Touring campaign, which is running at the moment and gives visitors suggestions of how they can find out more about Scotland's cultural heritage, encouraging them to travel the country."

Donald Smith, director of Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre, said modern Scots could learn much from folklore.

He said: "Scotland is richly endowed with these traditions and artists, visual and written, who have made huge use of this resource.

"In addition the timing is interesting, as Scottish culture, in an outward-looking rather than parochial way, is moving into the school curriculum."


SELKIES: Those who can transform between seal and human by taking off or putting on their skin.

WULVER: A werewolf in Shetland, which took the form of a man with a wolf's head and was said to leave fish on the windowsills of poor families.

KELPIE: A shape-shifting seahorse that would lure people on to its back, then dive into a deep loch to drown them.

LOCH NESS MONSTER (above): First mentioned in the 6th century, when a monk was rescued by St Columba.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

BLUE MEN OF MINCH: Blue-skinned men who lived underwater between the mainland and Isle of Lewis, seeking sailors to drown.

FAIRIES: Human-sized and often caused mischief. Blamed for sudden deaths and deformed children.

BANSHEE: Known as Bean Shidh in Scotland – a fallen fairy who preceded doom or death.

WITCHCRAFT (below): Alleged witches were tortured far more harshly in Scotland.