Perilous Shores: The Unfathomable Supernaturalism of Water in 19th-Century Scottish Folklore

By Harris, Jason Marc | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Perilous Shores: The Unfathomable Supernaturalism of Water in 19th-Century Scottish Folklore


Harris, Jason Marc, Mythlore


FROM THE SEAS TROUBLED BY DRAGONS, to the lochs haunted by kelpies and water horses, to shores and banks watched by fairies and glaistigs, the islands, coasts, and Highlands of Scotland present borderlands where the role of the supernatural in folk tales and legends articulates a sense of the local identity, rugged beauty, and frightful peril of these dynamic waters. (1) The power of water in Scottish folklore to present both a supernatural threat and defense exemplifies the riddle of deciphering the code of the many checks and balances of folk beliefs. Highland lore establishes the high water mark on a beach as protection against spectral assault, and generally spirits are reputed not to cross running water; however, in the countless variants of folk narrative there are tales that contradict these truisms of folk metaphysics. (2) To interpret these permutations of meaning in the folk tradition of water one must turn to language itself as a fluid borderland where the significance of any statement is contested by those who strive for the high ground in a battle of wits. Scottish wit-battles--especially between fairies and humans--demonstrate how a clash of perspectives rhetorically reshapes the contours of meaning, much as the shoreline is reformed by the breaking waves. Surveying the range of Scottish supernatural folklore gathered in the nineteenth century associated with watery frontiers reveals the fundamental struggle to define identity and power amid a chaotic world whose borders ebb and flow with countless perils.

One of the prevailing tendencies of folk legends is that the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday world most often occurs along the borders between the wild and the civilized, whether it be on the edge of the woods, near the entrance to the underworld (a cave), or along the bank of a river or shore of a lake, sea, or ocean. Part of the reason for this dynamic of a metaphysical contact zone along a shore is that it is the realm where the known and unknown worlds collide--how to define the nature of existence (from God to ghosts and fairies) depends upon the cultural beliefs that compete along that border for interpretative dominance. 3 The shore as a border for supernatural and cultural tensions is not unique to Scotland; its quality as a dangerous frontier is crystallized in the beliefs of the Saami (once called "Lapps," they have reclaimed their ethnic identity by using their own native language for their name) dwelling in Northern Norway, as Robert Paine reports:

   for the villagers, the Little People and the raw'ga [revenants from
   the sea]--located on the boundaries of tundra (with pastoral Saami)
   and sea (with Norwegians)--are lightning rods for the traumas and
   conflicts (with their brew of fear, stigma, ambiguity, and
   ambivalence) that villagers experience in their betwixt-and-between
   world. (360)

Globally, borders are historically fraught with anxiety: invaders must enter a land at its borders, and as the Celts discovered, the Norse arrived with their boats on their islands and coastlines. When Beowulf first arrives on the shores of Denmark from Sweden, he is looked at with suspicion as leading a vanguard of potential invaders or as "spies scouting out the land of the Danes" (Beowulf III. 253). Likewise, pirates after plunder presented a predatory threat, and thus the shoreline also presents a threshold between lawful order and dangerous chaos.

In the folktales of Scotland, the shore as a place of peril and the identification of giants with pirates manifests itself in those narratives where kidnappings sometimes take place on the shore, and some giant or other assaulting force absconds over the water. For example, in "The Rider of Grianaig, and Iain the Soldier's Son" three daughters of a knight are captured by a "beast" which delivers them to three giants who desire them for marriage: "There came a beast from the ocean and she took them with her, and there was no knowledge what way they had taken, nor where they might be sought" (John Francis [hereafter J. …

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