On the Trail of the Local Legend

  1. ‘On Knockfarrel hill above Strathpeffer are the remains of a vitrified Iron Age fort. Its stones were fused together by intense heat around 2000 years ago. The renowned Irish warrior Finn MacCoul once lived there, together with his warriors and their wives and children. One fine day, when Finn and his men were away hunting, the fort was deliberately burnt down, and all the women and children perished inside it.
  2. ‘Glen Sleddale is a valley among the hills and mountains of eastern Sutherland, not far south of Helmsdale. Some time around 1700, a hunter called Polson had found a wolf’s lair in the glen, in a cave beneath some scree. While his son and another boy were slaughtering the litter of cubs that was down in the lair, the she-wolf returned and slipped past Polson into the mouth of the cave. Polson managed to catch her by the tail and despatched her with his hunting knife, ending the life of the last wolf in that part of Sutherland.’
  3. ‘One stormy night, on the road between Rosemarkie and Cromarty on the Black Isle, a driver picked up a young girl who was hitch-hiking. She was soaked to the skin and shivering, so he lent her his jacket to put round her shoulders. She gave him an address, but when he reached it there was no sign of her in the back of his car. The woman who answered the door told him that her daughter had been killed on that stretch of road fifteen years before, and that each year, on the anniversary of her death, someone would give her a lift home – though she never arrived. He asked where she was buried. When he visited the cemetery the following day, his jacket was draped over her gravestone.’

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Before the days of radio and television, the Kindle and electric lighting, before literacy was widespread, one of the ways in which people would seek entertainment in the dark winter evenings was to tell and listen to stories. Many of these stories had their origins in a distant past; some, perhaps, had been passed down for thousands of years. They would have journeyed around the world, from one country and culture to another, in and out of many different languages, and some of them took an evening or several to tell. They spoke of kings and princesses, ogres and witches, fabulous journeys in the company of talking animals.

Today we still remember a handful of these stories, which are often called folk or fairy tales – Cinderella is one. Though now our appetite for the magic, adventure, and romance they have to offer is largely satisfied by fantasy literature, video games and CGI blockbusters. But there is one kind of traditional narrative which still has a foothold in our imaginations, and that is the local legend.

What is a local legend?

The three stories which are summarised at the beginning of this resource are examples of local legends. They are sited in specific locations and include quite particular details which help to anchor them there – like the vitrified fort, the name of the wolf hunter, and the road in the Black Isle. But if you dig a little you may find essentially the same stories told in, and about, other places too, often crossing over linguistic and cultural borders as their grander cousins did in the past. Stories which behave in this way are sometimes called “migratory legends”, and specific elements which move from story to story, are known as “motifs”.

The disastrous fire that immolated the families of the Fingalian warriors occurs in a number of places in the west Highlands, and elsewhere too, I imagine (though I don’t know of any other instance where it’s used to “explain” the vitrification of an Iron Age fort). There may well have been a hunter who killed wolves in the Helmsdale area; some people from the village proudly claim descent from “hunter Polson”. But the motif of restraining a wolf by holding on to its tail is also found in other parts of the Highlands, and at least as far away as Sweden. Versions of the story of the Phantom Hitchhiker are told internationally, and details vary according to location. It’s one of the many highly adaptable tales which have been called “urban legends”.

Local legends can also embellish the stories of events and people whose historical existence is in no doubt, with popular fantasies and migratory motifs. For example, the first Lord of Reay in Sutherland was a real enough historical character – born Donald Mackay in 1590, supporter of the Protestant cause after the Reformation, through to final, poverty-stricken days. But somewhere along the line between fact and fiction, legend and history can blur. The story that a showdown in Smoo Cave with the Lord of Darkness was narrowly avoided by Mackay’s sending his dog into the cave first – it of course emerged hairless and virtually skinless – owes considerably more to legend than it does to history.

 

(Bob Pegg)