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Articles by Stuart McHardy
The Hollow Hills


In various parts of the country different heroes are believed to be resting below ground awaiting the call to come forth to the aid of Scotland. The possibility exists that such stories are connected to the ancient beliefs associated with the great chambered cairn burials known throughout our landscape. Scholars nowadays see these as communal burials and no longer as the tombs of kings or other supposed high-status leaders of contemporary society. These chambered tombs contained in many instances the bones of many individuals, though not all of the bones. Skulls and thigh bones seemed to dominate, suggesting a link with the well-known motif on Scottish gravestones - the skull and crossbones, portrayed in countless  Hollywood films as the flag of pirates! It is now thought that these were the sites of specific rites on the great feast days of the year and Samhain (Soween) known today as Halloween which was very much a Feast of the Dead in trial times. The bones it seems were brought forth at these times and used in rituals in which the spirits of the dead would be prayed to ensure that the seeds planted in the earth would grow in the coming spring. After all the dead returned to the earth in time - dust to dust - and the Kingdom of the Dead has been long associated with being underground in many societies over many millennia. This also might help to explain the importance of genealogies or family histories in Scotland, and all over the world, for if you are asking your ancestors for direct help it seems a good idea to be sure of who you are talking to! Such genealogies, passed on like all other knowledge, by word of mouth, could go back for many generations - and the traditional genealogist of the Highland clans, the seannachie had his counterpart at the coronation of kings, as well as at the investiture of clan chiefs.

Eildon Hills

The Eidon Hills, to the south of Melrose in the Scottish Borders were known long ago to the invading Romans as Trimontium - the three-peaked hills. These striking landmarks have their own mysterious tale of the sleeping hero. It has long been told locally that King Arthur himself is sleeping inside the Eildons awaiting his call to arms. A local horse-dealer called Canonbie Dick, a fearless character “wha wid hae sellt a cuddy tae the Deil himsel”,  was riding home one evening by the Eildons when he was hailed by a man in very old-fashioned dress. He asked to buy the horse Dick had with him and after some hard bargaining paid for them in ancient gold coins, before disappearing into the night. This happened several times and at last Dick’s curiosity got he better of him and he suggested the mysterious stranger take him to his home for a drink to seal the bargain. Reluctantly the stranger agreed but warned Dick that he would be going in to danger, particularly if he lost his nerve.

This only served to intrigue the horse-dealer even more and he urged the stranger to get  a move on. The stranger led Dick to a hummock on the side of the Eildons still known today as the Lucken Hare, where to Dick’s surprise he opened a concealed door in the side of the hill. At once he found himself inside a huge torch-lit cavern full of rows of stalls and in each stall a sleeping horse and  a  warrior clad in ancient armour. The horses were all black as coal, matching the armour of the sleeping warriors. On a great table lay a massive sword and a horn of like size. The stranger told Dick that he was Thomas of Ercildoun, the famous Thomas the Rhymer and uttered the fateful words, “ He that shall sound that horn, and draw that sword shall, if his heart fail him not, be king over all broad Britain. But all depends on courage, and  much on your taking the sword or horn first.”

Dick took up the horn and with a trembling hand managed to blow a feeble note. In response a thundering sound erupted, the men and horses began to rise. Horses stamped their hooves and snorted and warriors sprang to their feet sword in hand. Dick was terrified and dropped the horn, reaching his hand to lift the enchanted sword.

A great voice rang out,

“Woe to the coward, that ever he was born, Who did not draw the sword before he blew the horn”

 At that a mighty wind came up and Dick was tossed in the air and thrown clean out of the cave. He had made the wrong choice. The following morning he was found lying on the hillside by local shepherds. Lifting his head he told his strange story, fell back and died.

A variant on this story is that once the Rhymer has bought enough coal black horses the warriors will sally forth from their slumbers to put the world to rights. In other legends from all over the British Isles the sleeping warriors are King Arthur and his Knights awaiting the call to come to the aid of Britain.

Thomas the Rhymer

The Eildons are of course where Thomas  Learmont of Ercildoun, now called Earlstone, was spirited away to by the Queen of Faerie for seven years. When at last he returned he had the gift of prophecy. Thomas of Ercildoun is believed to have been a real figure who lived in the 13th century and is accredited as the author of many folk rhymes and prophecies. The ballad.

The spot where he was spirited away is marked by  a stone where once there was an ancient  tree, probably a yew, and is known as the Eildon Tree Stone. Such was the hold of Thomas the Rhymer on the public imagination that he is mentioned in several of Scotland’s earliest histories and in the oral tradition is said to have lived locally in many parts of the country. There are many versions of the story but all agree he was on Eildon when he saw a fair lady dressed all in green, with her horses main dressed with silver bells, coming riding towards him. He is taken by both her beauty and her majesty and doffs his hat and kneels before her. She knows who Thomas is and says that she has come to see him.  She takes him up behind her on her horse and she heads for Eflinland.  They come to red river and Thomas asks what river this can be.  This she tells him is the river of blood that is shed on the earth in one day. They ride on and come to a crystal river. Again Thomas asks what river can this be and the Elfin queen tells him this the River if Tears that is spilled on the earth in one day. On and on they ride until they come to a thorny road and Thomas asks what road can this be. The Queen tells him that this the road he must never set foot on, for this is the road to Hell.  They ride on and further on and come to a great orchard and Thomas asks to be let down so he can have an apple or two for his is hungry indeed and these apples look very fine to him. The Queen tells him he cannot touch them for these are the apples that are made of the curses that fall on the earth in one day. The y ride on and she reaches high up into one particular tree and plucks him an apple. She gives him the apple telling him “it will give to you a tongue that will never lie”, and this is how he got  the gift of prophecy. The ride further on and at last come to a great and beautiful valley which she tells him is Elfin Land and here Thomas lived for seven long years. Then he returned to earth and became a great prophet. It is said amongst other things he foretold that the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean would one day meet through Scotland, and this is taken to mean the Caledonian Canal. Many and varied are the prophecies and rhymes from all over Scotland attributed to Thomas after his return from Elfland but a few years after a strange sight was seen. A whit hind and Hart came forth from the forest and  to Thomas’s village. The local people were amazed to see these wondrous creatures in their village and somebody ran to fetch Thomas to tell them what this could mean. When Thomas came he knew why they were there and bidding farewell to his friends, accompanied the deer back into the forest and was never seen again.

The motif of the deer and particularly the white deer has been associated with pagan religion, and particularly the mother goddess for thousands of years all over Europe and was a fitting messenger from the Elfin Queen to summon Thomas back to Elfland.

Jut as Arthur is said in some cases to have been sleeping inside hills so to was Finn McCoul, accompanied by the Fenians or Fianna. This tradition which comes from the Gaelic as opposed to British traditions survives in several locations including Skye and Inverness.

Tomnahurich.

Tomnahurich - the hill of the Yew Trees is in the centre of Inverness and in the middle of last century was chosen as a cemetery. The Yew Tree has long been associated with burial grounds, possibly because it lives so long that it seemed eternal to our ancestors. Some yew trees like the famous one at Fortingall in Perthshire live for thousands of years, the Fortingall Yew possibly being the oldest living organism in Europe.

A story concerning Tomnahurich that has lasted a long time has changed its clothes many times.

Not long ago two sturdy but wild-looking, young, kilted lads were seen in the centre of Inverness. Both were carrying bag-pipes  - it is still not unusual to see kilted pipers in the streets of Inverness, or other Scottish cities but there was something a bit odd about these lads.  They were seen to be cursing and shouting at all the passing cars - in Gaelic.  It was just a matter of time before the police were called and the two young ads locked up in the local ail. In the morning they appeared before the sheriff, who fortunately had the Gaelic himself and they told their story. Nether had seen a car and had been casing the stramash out of fear. Thus intrigued the sheriff so he asked them for their story.

One night, they told him, they were on their way to Inverness from Strathspey to play in the streets when they were stopped on the road by an old man. He offered them a guinea apiece, and as much whisky as they could drink if they would pipe for him and a few of his friends. This was a very good offer and they accepted at once.

The old man led them up the side of Tomnahurich and half-way up the ancient sacred mound they came across a great wooden door which the old man opened. They stepped inside to a great ball-room full of beautifully dressed, handsome men and women, waiting to dance. They were given a dram, then another and ordered to play. At once the place came alive and all through the night, refreshed with regular drams of the very finest whisky the pipers played. At last the dance came to an end and the old man thanked them, gave them a guinea each  and led them to the door. It was then that they started to get worried as the city had changed mightily and there were all these strange hard, noisy beast in the streets - by this they meant the cars. They told the Sheriff they had concealed their golden guineas form the police but as they handed them over to him the coins crumbled into dust.

They were returned to the cells and a minister was called to  have a word with these odd characters. One of them then told the clergyman that he had been at the Battle of Sherrifmuir the week before! The Battle of Sherrifmuir took place in 17 and at once the Minister began to intone a prayer. A soon as the name of God was mentioned the pipers, their pipes and clothes crumbled into a pile of dust around the minister’s feet.

This story is also told in many places, sometimes  with fiddlers instead of pipers,  and seems to combine a belief in the fairies with an ongoing respect for places of ancient sanctity - as well as providing a very good tale for a winter’s night. Tomnahurich itself was believed to be the main meeting place for he fairies in all of the Highlands this giving it its alternative name Tom-na Sitheachan, the Hill of the Fairies. This type of tale is widespread and in some cases the musician is smart enough to stick a knife or other iron object in the door f the fairy hill, thus ensuring that e can escape. This is because the fairies seem to be descended from a time before iron as known and therefore it acts as a countercharm to their wiles.

Calton Hill.

Another famous fairy Hill is Calton Hill overlooking Princes Street in the heart of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. Today Calton Hill is once again the site of Beltain rites (see Chapter 6?) but it too has a story of celebrations inside the hill itself.

Around the year 1660 a seaman called Captain Burton was witness to a remarkable event. He had been told of a young lad who was locally called d the Fairy Boy who was possessed of the second sight - a gift given him by the fairies. Burton was intrigued and arranged to meet the boy. The lad told the Captain that every Thursday night he would take his drum to Calton ill. There a great pair of gates in the side of the hill would open. He would enter and play for the fairies as they danced through the night. There was  great deal of feasting and drinking and on occasion they would all fly off through the air to France or Holland and hold their revelries there. The Captain was sceptical but the boy said he was bound to attend these celebrations every Thursday and that all the people of Scotland would not be able to keep him away. Intrigued Burton assembled a group of his friends the next Thursday and they met the Fairy Boy in a hostelry. They intended keeping him in conversation till past his supposed appointed hour at which point they thought they would force him to confess to making it all up. However at about an hour before midnight they suddenly realised that he had managed to slip away from them. They rushed out into the light and headed towards the hill. They managed to intercept the lad and drag him back to the tavern, but within minutes he had gone again and this time could not be found.  It was thought he had managed to go and join his fairy friends.

Calton Hill was the site of revelry and feasting on Beltain, and probably other significant times of the year into th17th century and its name refers to it being the hill of the hazels. These hazel trees provided the nuts used in divination, particularly at Halloween, and in ancient belief in the Celtic-speaking world the hazel was a sacred tree. Its nuts were particularly sacred. The Beltain festival on Calton Hill was accompanied by the Robin Hood Games - a day when all kinds of mischief took place and this was a celebration frowned on after the Reformation. You can get t a clear idea of what was going on from some of the characters involved in such games. One of the principal characters was the Abbot of Misrule and in the plays Robin Hood and Little John were seen as representatives of the common people and would fight with bishops and noblemen in the staged plays or pageants. There was a considerable amount of drinking and general licentiousness. In the 18th century the great religious gatherings with multiple preachers seem to have taken on some of the aspects of these more ancient assemblies as can be seen in Robert Burns’ poem the Holy Fair. After the Reformation the Kirk decided to suppress the games themselves,  but it took several years, fines and even imprisonment before the people gave up this ancient practice. The revival of Beltain on such a site of truly ancient sanctity has a certain sense to it and its attraction can be seen in the ever-increasing number of young people and families who attend.

Fairy Hills

All of the above can be considered as fairy hills as can other notable landmarks such as Schiehallion - the name has been said to mean the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians, and in the past it is likely that every area had its own fairy hill. Some Schiehallion and Dundee Law are said either to be hollow or to have tunnels through them. Some scholars have seen the belief in fairy hills as in some way related to tumuli or burial mounds and the belief in fairies themselves remnants of an ancient form of ancestor worship as mentioned above. All over Scotland there are small, regularly shaped hills that are associated with the fairies and some of them have striking stories.

The Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle.

Aberfoyle in the heart of the magnificent Trossachs has its own Fairy Hill which is the focus of a remarkable story. In the late 17th century the local minister was the rev. Robert Kirk who in 16791 published a remarkable book. This was The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies an investigation into the ancient beliefs in these creatures among the Highland population . In this book he stated that many Highlanders  believed that their ancestors spirits lived in the fairy hills -  remarkably close to what seem to have been the beliefs of the people who raised the cambered cairns thousands of years before - and that for every churchyard there would be a Fairy Mound  to where the souls of the dead would pass. Contemporary belief seems to have been that the souls would remain there till the Day of Judgement. Such mounds of course are much older than the Christian belief and we have an amalgam of beliefs here. It was a matter of faith that no one should ever interfere with such mounds as this would displease the Little People and bring misfortune on the head of anyone who disturbed them. This amalgam  of beliefs finds a strange echo in the fate of the Reverend Kirk himself. The secret Commonwealth contains very detailed descriptions of what the fairies were and how they behaved and local people believed that he had gone to far and that the fairies themselves were extremely displeased at the for disclosing their secrets. Kirk himself was a seventh son and had been born with the gift of second sight - a talent that those who possess it often see as accursed rather than a blessing. The tone of the secret Commonwealth and its great detail make it easy to believe that though a minister the Presbyterian Church, Kirk himself had a belief in the People of Peace. One day while he was walking n the Fairy Hill of Aberfoyle itself he fell down dead and local people said it was the work of the fairies.  After his funeral his spirit came to a relative and told him that he wasn’t dead but that he had been spirited way to Fairyland. He asked him  to pass on a message to another cousin, Graham of Duchray. The message was that at the forthcoming  baptism of his son, who had been born since the disappearance and, he would appear in the room. At that point Duchray was to throe the knife or dirk he held in his hand over the spirit’s head the spell would be broken and Kirk would return to life. His last words were ominous,” If this be neglected, I am lost forever.” The appointed day came and true to his word Kirk appeared but his cousin Duchray was so astonished he could not bring himself to throw the knife. The spirit of the lost minister disappeared and has never been seen since.

The Two Hunchbacks

Near Kilchrenan by Loch Awe there is a fairy mound with an interesting tale - the Two Hunchbacks. This is a story known all over the  world and which has moved from the countryside into the town. I first heard of this tale as a joke in a Dundee pub, which just illustrates how tenacious the ideas and stories of our ancestors can be!

In a clachan near Kilchrenan there lived two hunchbacks, Hamish and Handy who though going to the same school, being the same age and suffering from the same deformity were like chalk and cheese.  Hamish was a capable, kindly lad while Handy was an idle, worthless chiel with a wicked tongue. He took great delight in making Hamish miserable any chance he got. Hamish was deeply in love with a lass called Morag, a local beauty, and when one day he realised this, Handy told everyone making the point that such a beauty would have nothing to do with a deformed creature like Hamish. After finishing work that same day Hamish wandered off on his own and sat down on a hillside where he burst into tears. Suddenly he heard his name being spoken and looked up to see a small but beautiful woman dressed all in green. She asked what was wrong and he poured out his heart to her, telling her all about his feelings for Morag and his problems with Handy. The woman smiled and told him to come that night to the wee green knoll, knock on the hill and say “ Fosgail an dorus,” three times. This means open the door and the wee woman was of course one of the People of Peace. She stressed he must say the phrase three times only.

That night Hamish made his way to the knoll and knocking gently on the hill with the stick he needed to help him walk, he said the magic words.

At once a door opened and he stepped inside. He found himself in a large well-lit chamber full of the wee folk, with beautiful music filling the air. Seated on a dais in the centre of it all as the woman he had met early whom he now realised was the Queen of the Fairies herself. She explained that she had taken pity on him and asked if he would like her to cast a spell on Morag to make her love him. Hamish said no, he didn’t think it fair to have Morag fall for a wee twisted creature like himself. “ What the would you have?” asked the queen.

“Make me like other men,” said Hamish, “straight and tall.” Hardly were the words out of his mouth when he found himself looking down at the little people, his hunchback had disappeared! The queen smiled and asked what he thought of his chances with Morag now? Hamish could hardly speak in his excitement and stammered that he would have to wait and see.

The very next  moment he was outside the fairy hill and rushed home. His life was changed totally. His new appearance gave him new confidence and he went to Morag and told her how he felt. She saw before her a well-built handsome young man with a kindly air and a sparkle in his eyes and soon he was ahead of all her other suitors in her affections.

Handy was beside himself with jealousy and came to Hamish to demand how he had managed to change himself. Despite Handy’s past actions Hamish was never a lad to hold a grudge and freely told Handy what had happened, stressing that he must only say the appropriate phrase three times, no more no less. Handy immediately started planning for what he could do once he too had got rid of his hunchback. Oh he would show them all then.

That night, bursting with excitement. Handy approached the knoll. He could hardly contain himself and stamped heavily on the wee hill, shouting out “Fosgail an dorus,” three times, then a few times more for good measure. In all he shouted it seven times.

Right enough the door opened and he was pulled in. But it was no scene of merriment and pleasure he found. The fairies were indignant and stood around him ominously. Handy looked at the queen but made no gesture of respect. He was asked what he wanted and he told them he wanted what Hamish had been given. At that point one of the fairies tweaked his coat and the headstrong Handy skelped him across the ear. Immediately he found himself birling through the air till he didn’t know if he was up or down. The next thing he found himself alone on the wee hillock with Hamish’s hump as well as his own.!

When the story came out he was greatly pitied but many people could not help but laughing and soon he left to wander who knows where.

In time Morag agreed to be Hamish’s wife and when they were married and raising a family they never passed the Fairy Hill of Kilchrenan without a good word or kind thought for the Little People.


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