Discovering Scotland’s Mythology: From Loch Ness to the Kelpies

by | 28 Dec 2023

Scotland is a magical country, thanks in part to the Scottish mythology that cradles its natural sense of whimsy.

Some Scottish folklore creatures are synonymous with the country, like unicorns, while other famous myths and legends emanating from Britain’s north are rich tales that captivate locals and visitors alike.

While you’re certain to hear a well-spun yarn when sipping a dram with a Scot, here are seven stories of Scottish mythology and legends that you should know before venturing into Scotland.

Fall in love with all of Scotland’s myths and legends on the Romantic Britain & Ireland tour through Insight Vacations. Who knows? Maybe you’ll spot one of Scotland’s folklore creatures roaming about the Highlands.

The Unicorn

post image

The unicorn: to most countries of the world, it’s a mythical creature. To Scotland, it’s the official national animal.

Sadly, its presence has nothing to do with the actual presence of unicorns in Scotland. Rather, it was chosen for the Scotland royal coat of arms in the 1500s. Unicorns symbolize innocence, power, and purity in Celtic mythology and Scottish mythology was inclined to agree.

You may not be able to spot a unicorn in Scotland — aside from the many decorative ones around the cities — but you can celebrate Scotland’s national animal in April on National Unicorn Day.

Read next: 12 little known facts about Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns

The Kelpies

post image

Unicorns may be the national animal of Scotland, but they’re far from the only horse-like creature in Scottish mythology. To find one of these Scottish folklore creatures, you’ll have to look to the rivers and streams.

Kelpies are shape-shifting spirits that haunt bodies of water. They’re usually observed resembling a horse, though legend also says it may appear as a human-like figure. Unicorns are innocent and pure, but kelpies aren’t cut from the same cloth. These beasts lure the young to their deaths.

The good news is that all you need to do is grab their bridle and you’ll control these beasts.

Dig deeper into the history of Scotland during the Elegance of Great Britain tour with Insight Vacations. Crisscross Scotland from Gretna Green to Edinburgh to Ardgowan Estate as you learn about the origins of the land and its people.

The Selkies

So unicorns are one-horned horses and kelpies are shape-shifting creatures that look like horses. To throw a wee bit of confusion into the mix, there are also things called selkies in Scottish mythology and they shape-shift into humans (and seals, as well) just like kelpies.

Selkies are also found near the waterways, specifically up in the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. Like kelpies, they can shift into attractive human-like figures, though the good news is that selkies aren’t trying to dunk your head underwater. They’re some of the kindest, calmest Scottish folklore creatures you may or may not encounter.

The Curse of the Clava Cairns

post image

The great thing about curses is that they’re often straightforward and totally avoidable. Case in point: The Curse of the Clava Cairns.

This page of Scottish mythology involves the Clava Cairns, Bronze Age cemeteries-like complexes near Inverness. Standing stones mark this prehistoric site dating back 4,000 years. You can visit them with respect and observe without risk…but don’t try to tamper with the stones.

Those who remove stones from this sacred ground are said to be cursed. The Curse of the Clava Cairns became one of the famous myths and legends of Scotland thanks to a Belgian tourist who removed a stone, took it home, then watched as misfortune befell his family.

Loads of other superstitions line the site, but whether or not it’s truly cursed, it’s very illegal and very uncool to steal from any historic site.

More info: 7 ways our best of Ireland & Scotland tour will capture your heart

The Wild Haggis

Not exactly the most famous element of Scottish mythology, but a fun one nonetheless. The Wild Haggis is a silly beast covered in shaggy hair with two sets of uneven legs. The wee beastie is very much a creature born from a creative mind, but that doesn’t stop the Scottish pranksters from trying to convince tourists that you need to catch wild haggis in order to eat the signature Scottish dish.

Get your fill of real haggis on the Britain & Ireland Explorer tour with Insight Vacations. We’ll spend a few days eating our way from Edinburgh to Loch Lomond.

The Creation of Loch Ness

post image

Before we get to the monster, let’s go a bit deeper into one of the most iconic bits of Scottish mythology.

According to the legend, Loch Ness and most of Scotland’s landscape was created by the mother of all gods and goddesses in Scottish mythology: Dark Beira. She had an assistant named Nessa, but one day Nessa abandoned her duties, and Dark Beira took this act as betrayal. Dark Beira turned Nessa into the River Ness to force her to forever run in the waters. Somehow Nessa was able to escape the river and form herself into what’s now Loch Ness.

Save for later: 4 ways you’ll taste the very best of Scotland with Insight Vacations

The Loch Ness Monster

post image

There are dozens of Scottish folklore creatures: the Mermaid of Kessock, the Fiddlers of Tomnahurich, the Blue Men of Minch, the Will-o’-the-wisp.

But the star of Scottish mythology is Nessie.

The Loch Ness Monster is one of the most famous mythical creatures around the planet. It’s a serpentine dwelling creature but you already knew that — who among us hasn’t seen an alleged photo of Nessie?

Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? Who’s to say? No scientists, explorers, or historians have unearthed any verifiable evidence that proves Nessie is real. Then again, reports of a monster looming in the loch go back all the way to the first century; those who saw the creature even carved their sightings into stone.

What’s not a well-spun yarn or fictitious fable? How truly amazing Scotland’s landscape, community, and very real inhabitants are. Join Insight Vacations for one of our many wonderful tours through Great Britain that showcase Scotland’s best cities in all of their glory.

Have you spotted, or heard rumors of, any otherworldly creatures on your travels? Let us know in the comments below

About Nick Dauk
Nick Dauk is a freelance writer primarily writing SEO content for travel, insurance, finance, tech, and start-up companies. From interviews with executives of IBM and HPE to his adventures around the world, Nick's stories are frequently published by leading publications across the United States and Europe.