Unsolved Scottish mysteries

Many mystery writers use Scotland as the setting for their novels, like The Balmoral Incident and Out of Bounds. Besides the many legends and myths about supernatural creatures, there are plenty of real events that remain unexplained today…

 

Dundee’s mystery hangman

 

Photo courtesy of Dark Dundee (2017)

 

A criminal gang known as the Black Band terrorised Dundee throughout the 1830s with break-ins, robberies and riots. An Irish member, Mark Devlin, was captured in 1835 and sentenced to death by hanging. Unfortunately, Dundee didn’t have a hangman, so they had to call for an executioner from Edinburgh. The executioner failed to show up, so officials were forced to ask for volunteers from the townspeople. The volunteer identified himself as local showman James Livingstone, but requested that he wear a mask during the execution. As it turns out, the real James Livingstone had been 15 miles away, in the town of Forfar, at the time of the incident. Needless to say, James was pretty upset, and gathered several reliable witness accounts to prove it wasn’t him. 180 yeas later, no one knows who hung Mark Devlin.

 

The Great Mull airplane mystery

 

Photo courtesy of Mystery Ink (2016)

In December 1975, former Royal Air Force pilot Peter Gibbs drank whisky and a bottle of bordeaux at a hotel in the small Isle of Mull. Him and his girlfriend left swiftly, announcing to hotel staff that he was going to fly a rented Cessna plane. The staff protested, worried that flying at night after drinking was unsafe, to which Peter responded:

 “I am not asking for permission, I just thought it was courtesy to let you know.”

Upon Peter’s instructions, his girlfriend Felicity remained on the ground and held up two torchlights to guide the airplane as there were no landing lights. He told Felicity that he would land once in Glen Forsa, to prove that night landing was possible, and then return to her after a few minutes. Two hours later, Peter had still not returned, and a 72 hour storm broke loose. Gibbs’ body was not found until 4 months later on a hillside, but apart from a small cut on his leg he had suffered no other injuries. He did not look like a man who had crashed his plane into a hill, nor was there any evidence to suggest his body had been in contact wit sea water. The aircraft was found between Mull and the mainland 11 years later, but the doors were locked and the engine, wheels and wings had been detached, suggesting a serious crash had happened. Many questions remain: why wasn’t his body found during the police search in the first 4 months? Mull is a very small island, making it relatively difficult to completely lose a human (let alone a plane). Why was the plane in such terrible condition, meanwhile Gibbs only suffered a small cut on his leg? Why did he decide to fly that night at all? To this day, the mystery remains unresolved.

 

 

Bluejacket Boy

Photo courtesy of Alistair Munro (2014)

In 1949, a woman found a stamped letter behind her fireplace in the Orkney Islands, although she had no idea how it got there. The letter was dated 1916 and was addressed to Wales, with the sender identifying himself simply as Bluejacket Boy. The intended recipient, John Williams, has been identified as a member of the navy in World War I. In the letter, Bluejacket Boy mentions several family members, and that he sent a handkerchief with a photo of a sailor on it to someone named Ethel.

Photo courtesy of Orkney Library & Archive

 

Decades later, the Orkney library conducted a search on the 1911 Census and were eventually able to uncover the identity of Bluejacket Boy: a man named Dai Phillips, pictured above. Dai’s granddaughter, Minnie, has also been traced and will be collecting the letter from Orkney one day. We still don’t know how the letter ended up behind that fireplace, but at least we finally know who Bluejacket Boy is.

 

 

Bible John & The Barrowland Killings

 

Photo courtesy of Ron McKay (2017)

 

In the late 1960s, three women named Patricia Docker, Jemima McDonald and Helen Puttock were picked up from the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow by an unidentified man, on separate occasions. The women were all raped and strangled with their own stockings. The most unsettling part of the story is that all three women were menstruating at the time of the murders, and their bodies were found with used sanitary towels and tampons near their bodies. The bodies were found in different locations, however they had all been murdered the same way, and gotten their handbags stolen – although their belongings were left by their corpses. Witness accounts allowed police to create a sketch of what they think Bible John might look like, but 50 years later, we still don’t know who was responsible for the rape and murders of the Barrowland Ballroom.

Scottish myths and legends

We’ve all heard of the Loch Ness monster, but there are many more frightening myths and legends from Scottish history. With the nights getting longer, colder and darker, snuggle up and learn about the creatures that haunt and taunt the Scottish lands.

Selkies

Photo courtesy of Clan Rollo Online

The mythical tale of Selkies originated on the Orcadian shores in the 18th century, with people claiming that shapeshifting seal-folk were crawling out of the sea. Unlike mermaids, who are half-fish and half-human, selkies can transform from seals into supernaturally beautiful people with seductive powers over mortal humans. After the transformation, selkies would leave their sealskin on the shore – if lost or stolen, they would have to remain in human form for eternity. According to one Scottish tale, a man found an ethereal selkie sunbathing on the beach, and stole her sealskin – hence, the selkie was forced to be his wife and bear his children. Many years later, she found her sealskin and escaped back to the sea, leaving her children and husband behind. While sirens are renowned for luring in sailors for malicious purposes, the tales of selkies are generally more romantic. Yet, selkies tell a tragic story of constantly longing for what they do not have: when they are seals in the water, they long to be humans on land, but when they are humans, they want to swim in the sea. Selkies may fall in deep, deep love with humans, but their longing for the sea will always prevail.

 

 

Ghillie Dhu

Photo courtesy of Morrigan Aoife

Sorry, Edinburgh folks, I’m not talking about the legendary bar – let me tell you the story of a solitary Scottish male fairy. Ghillie Dhu lived alone in the forest, and disguised himself in trees with his 7 inch stature, light green skin and long, branchy arms. Although very friendly to children, the tiny creature would prey on adults lost in the woods at night and kill or enslave them. Ghillie Dhu has also been said to collect the teeth of children to perform protective magic on them – it has been speculated that this tale gave rise to the myth of the tooth fairy.

 

Though solitary they would like to stay

They may help those who lose their way

But don’t misjudge these dark-haired fae

Or you’ll be the one that they betray!

Hiding their green skin and hazel eyes

Moss and leaves are their disguise

Entering their forest would be unwise

Offend them and get a big surprise!

Poem by Morrigan Aoife

 

 

Baobhan Sith

Photo courtesy of Scot Clans (2016)

The Baobhan Sith (pronounced ba-van see) were known as ‘The White Women of The Scottish Highlands’, renowned for alluring young, naïve travellers of the Highlands and drinking their blood. It is said that some have hooves instead of feet, hidden under long dresses, and that they shapeshift into wolves. These vampire fairies rise from their graves once a year, and seduce unsuspecting victims by inviting them to dance. Generally working in groups, the Baobhan Sith will dance seductively with the men before ripping them to pieces with their fingernails. Their only weakness? They are terrified of iron, as one survivor told the tale of hiding between his horses (and their iron horseshoes), forcing the vampires to run away.

 

Black Donald

Photo courtesy of Francisco Goya

In the Highlands, the devil is known as Black Donald, a shapeshifting goat causing terror across the north of Scotland. He was known for his cloven feet, the only giveaway for whatever disguise he used. To summon the devil, the Highlanders would perform a taghairm  a form of spiritual calling of the dead usually involving animal sacrifice – in which they spit-roasted cats alive until Black Donald appeared and granted any wish they asked for. Nowadays, of course, people tend to just use ouija boards or perform the Black Donald dance to attract his attention.

 

The Shetland Wulver

 

Unlike most of the aforementioned creatures, the Shetland Wulver is, in fact, not a shapeshifter (as far as we know). According to Celtic beliefs, the Wulver is the stage between evolving from wolf to man, where they have a human body but the head and hair of a wolf. The Wulver is not malicious and violent like his werewolf brethren, but is famous for being kindhearted, and spending their days sitting on rocks and fishing. The Celtics believe the Wulver is immortal, however one has not been sighted for over 100 years.

The Gorbals Vampire

Photo courtesy of Mysterious Scotland (2015)

A more modern legend is the tale of the Gorbals Vampire, which shook Glasgow as recently as 1954. Two young schoolboys were brutally kidnapped and killed by a mysterious villain described as a 7 foot tall “vampire with iron teeth”. On September 23rd, 1954, hundreds of school children from the age of 4 to 14 gathered in the Southern Necropolis graveyard armed with knives, sticks and a crucifix to hunt for the vampire. The police quickly stopped the spectacle, and would later deny that any children were missing at the time, claiming it was simply an urban myth. Still, the incident caused mass hysteria, with the press blaming the American comic book titled The Vampire With Iron Teeth. Later theorists have argued that a passage from the bible, Daniel 7:7, which reads ‘behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth‘ may also have played a role in the event. Whether or not the Gorbals Vampire is real or not, the spectacle was dramatic enough that the government introduced the Children and Young Persons Act of 1955 which specifically banned the sale of comics portraying repulsive or horrible incidents to minors.

 

Magical Places in the Highlands

  • Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye

Photo courtesy of Lam, K. (2017) Visit Scotland

The famous Fairy Pools are a truly magical phenomenon right in the Glen Brittle forest. The crystal clear water is so blue that you almost start to think you’ve accidentally wandered to Greece – but the moment you jump in, reality hits you like an ice bath. Don’t let it stop you though! It’s worth the trip just for the photos, and it makes for a pretty scenic walk. Want to really feel the magic? Stop by Talisker Distillery for some peaty, peaty goodness. In terms of accommodation, we’ve got you covered – book in at Skye Backpackers here.

 

Loch Ness

We may as well talk about the elephant in the room… Loch Ness is arguably Scotland’s most famous loch, but before you go, you might want to brush up on your knowledge of the proper pronunciation of loch (it’s not what you think). While you’re admiring the scenery, remember to bring your binoculars and try to spot the famous Loch Ness Monster, aka Nessie. Fun fact: the first sighting of Nessie dates as far back as 565 AD, and there have been dozens of official research expeditions aiming to find the monster. For the best viewing spot, get yourself a bed at the Lochside Hostel, located right on the edge of Loch Ness.

 

Finnich Glen

Photo courtesy of Reddit user @FocustoInfinity (2016)

You may recognise Finnich Glen, now commonly referred to as Devil’s Pulpit, from the TV series Outlander. Rumour has it, Finnich Glen was also a secret meeting place for the ancient Druids, and was also literally where Satan preached to the monks. Despite being located just 15 miles from Glasgow, the site is profoundly remote and peaceful. Finnich Glen is famous for its crimson red water streams that rise and fall to reveal the Devil’s Pulpit rock.

 

Enchanted Forest, Pitlochry

Photo courtesy of Angus Forbes (2017)

The Enchanted Forest is an outdoor light and sound festival set in Faskally Wood in Highland Perthshire, taking place from October 4th to November 4th in 2018. Renowned as Scotland’s premier light experience, the event aims to create a fairytale-esque experience using lights on the natural scenery, accompanied by live music and actors. This year’s show is named ‘Oir an Uisge’ (translation: ‘edge of the water’ in Gaelic’). To complete the experience, you can grab some mulled wine and head over to the Storytelling Yurt for some enchanting tales. At the end of the night, kick back with some hot chocolate and a game of pool at the Pitlochry Backpackers Hotel.

 

Callanish Stones

Photo courtesy of Visit Scotland (2016)

Scotland’s equivalent of the Stonehenge, also known as Stonehenge of the North, can be found near Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis. The stones are made from the one of the oldest rocks in Britain, Lewisian gneiss, which dates back approximately 3000 million years. It remains unknown as to why the Callanish Stones were erected 5000 years ago, however it is known that it was a hotspot for ritual activity for 2000 years. Ancient folklore claims that the stones were giants who refused to convert to Christianity, and were petrified by St Kieran, effectively turning them to stone. Maybe by magic?

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Speaking of magical, let’s not forget the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, better known as The Harry Potter Bridge, where you can catch the Jacobite steam train, aka the Hogwarts Express. The viaduct was featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the Prisoner of Azkaban, attracting thousands of visitors every year. The town, Mallaig, was actually considering closing the railway due to economic troubles – luckily, JK Rowling turned the Glenfinnan Viaduct into a tourist attraction and saved the jobs of many locomotive workers. For the ultimate experience, catch the Jacobite steam train from Fort William to Mallaig, and head out from the car park to get a good view.

You’re a wizard, Harry.

What’s happening in Edinburgh this month?

Edinburgh Festival of Wine

November 4th 12pm

Photo courtesy of Edinburgh Festival of Wine (2017)

Tom Cannavan of STV’s The Hour brings you an all-day wine celebration, with samples of over 200 of the UK’s best wines at the famous Balmoral hotel. You can also attend a few masterclasses to make you a true wine connoisseur. Go on a journey through Chenin Blanc with South African wine expert Ken Forrester, or do a taste test to determine whether decanting really makes a difference. And the true highlight – a wine and cheese matching masterclass with Tom himself.

 

Guy Fawkes Night

November 5th

Photo courtesy of Alan McCredie (2015)

Guy Fawkes night, also known as bonfire night, is a celebration of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to kill James VI. To celebrate, swing by The Meadows for public bonfires and set off fireworks, or you can head to the garden centre in Lasswade for food and fireworks from 6pm. The Meadowbank Stadium is hosting its last fireworks display before undergoing major renovations from 6pm. This year’s theme is Sci Fi, so don’t forget to dress up – and get ready for a truly artistic firework show.

 

Yellow Movement Friday

November 17th from 7pm

The Yellow Movement Friday is returning to Stramash with the assistance of 6 bands to fundraise and raise awareness for Who Cares? Scotland. Entry is free from 7pm to midnight, after which the stage will be taken over by Scottish folk duo The Mad Ferret Band. Stramash hosts live music 7 days a week until 3am, find out more about their November lineup here.

 

Edinburgh Christmas Markets

November 17th to January 6th

Photo courtesy of Edinburgh’s Christmas (2017)

The famous Christmas Market is a favourite among locals and tourists alike, turning George Street and Princes Street gardens into a spectacular winter wonderland. This year brings back classic food and drink stalls where you will find German pretzels, lobster sandwiches, bratwurst and sauerkraut, and of course, hot toddies, gin and tonics and more. Adventure seekers can skate through Frozen Scotland‘s ice rink, scale an ice wall, and take a ride on The Yeti or Starflyer. Some newcomers this year are the brand new Forth 1 Big Wheel (pictured above) and the Candy Cane Bungees (not for the faint hearted). Entertainment is provided by critically acclaimed La Clique Noël, serving up a dazzling mix of cabaret, magic, burlesque, comedy, circus and music.

 

Edinburgh Tequila Festival

November 18th 1pm-11pm

Photo courtesy of Edinburgh Tequila Festival (2017)

The Mexican Fiesta will be touring 16 cities around the UK, swinging by ATIK in Edinburgh on November 18th. You can expect a mariachi band, piñatas, over 30 brands of tequila and some Mexican classics like tacos, fajitas and nachos. You also receive a complimentary shot of tequila, a sombrero and a tequila bible with your ticket. Arriba arriba, andale andale!

 

St Andrews Day

November 30th

The 30th of November is Scotland’s national day, so the city will be bustling with events and activities to celebrate. George Street will transform into an ice rink filled with sculptures of historical figures, so you can polish up your skating skills and Scottish history knowledge at the same time! Buy your tickets here before they sell out. More of a dancer? Celebrate St Andrews Day in true Scottish fashion by dancing the night away at a ceilidh from 8pm at The Counting House or Lauriston Hall. You can also feast on some traditional Scottish dishes and listen to songs and stories about Scotland at the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Fisherman’s Feast, Sailor’s Rest event.

 

Weekly events & gigs

Don’t worry music lovers, we haven’t forgotten about you. This month at Whistle Binkies you can watch performances by The Lost Boys, Karel Kalaf Trio, Matt Gloss & The Emulsions and more.   If you want to work on your stage confidence, or simply just show your talent, you can attend Open Mic Night every Monday at Whistle Binkies, and every Tuesday at Stramash. Not ready to perform yet? Every Monday, Stramash hosts Songwriter Sessions with some local performers to get you in the zone. For those of you wondering about the nightlife, Edinburgh has something to offer every night of the week. If you are staying at any of our MacBackpackers Edinburgh hostels, you can join our free Thursday pub crawl to take you around the city. On Saturday nights, guests at Castle Rock Hostel compete in a weekly beer pong tournament followed by a night on the town.

 

 

 

What’s happening in Scotland this month?

With Halloween fast approaching and the hours of daylight dropping, we must admit defeat and accept that winter has officially come. But while you’re counting down the days to Christmas, take some time out to explore the many festivals and events Scotland has to offer in November.

 The Woodland Light Experience – October 25th to November 12th

Photo courtesy of Woodland Experiences (2016)

The Woodland Light Experience is a magical outdoor light and sound show set in Balfron. The woodlands are transformed into a mythical wonderland, accompanied by storytelling from 4:30pm to 6:30pm in the Storyteller’s Yurt. The Fairy Experience takes you on an enchanting walk through the fairy trail, 10-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays. While you’re at it, hop on the tractor to Santa’s cabin for some hot food and a personally guided tour around Santa’s neighbourhood. Buy your tickets for the Woodland Light Experience here.

 Stirling Gin Festival – November 3rd to 4th

The Stirling Gin Festival is returning for its fourth and biggest gin celebration at the Stirling Highland hotel. For £27.50 a head, you can explore over 50 brands of gin including Edinburgh Gin, Pickerings, Eden Mill and some award-winning newcomers. FeverTree tonic and garnishes will be provided with guidance from the makers to help you find your favourite style of gin and tonic.

Guy Fawkes Night – November 5th

Remember, remember, the fifth of November! In 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested for attempting to murder King James I with explosives as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate his failed attempt, people across the United Kingdom light bonfires and fireworks. The Inverness Civic Bonfire & Fireworks Display is one of Scotland’s most popular Guy Fawkes shows, running from 19:30 to 19:50. You can also head over to Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium for this year’s Sci-fi Themed Fireworks Display.

Oban Winter Festival – November 17th to 26th

Photo courtesy of Oban Winter Festival (2017)

The Oban Winter Festival is a 10-day event with markets, a Reindeer parade, light shows, performances and exhibitions. Oban is one of Scotland’s oldest sources of Single Malt Scotch Whisky, so why not sample Scotland’s national drink at the Distillery Market?

The festival also features a Victorian market where you can pick up some handmade goods and gifts just in time for Christmas, and grab some traditional Scottish grub at the Corran Halls Market. Fun fact: 2017 is the year of the Haggis! Come on down to the Haggisfest and cast your vote for the “people’s choice”, or you know, just enter the Haggis Hurling competition. Kilts provided.

To finish off the experience, you can dance the night away at a Grand Ceilidh featuring the sweet, sweet tunes of Oban Pipe Band. Don’t be shy – your host will show you the moves.

Staying for the night? Book yourself in at Oban Backpackers here.

Inverness Christmas Lights Switch On – 19th November 5:45pm-8pm 

As if looking for Nessie wasn’t a good enough excuse, you can add the Christmas Lights Switch On to your list of reasons to visit Inverness. On the 19th of November, the town is filled with hundreds of locals and tourists alike to welcome the Christmas spirit with a spectacular light and animation show accompanied by Christmas carols and traditional Scottish tunes. After the show, Santa and his reindeers will even accompany you to a panto at the Eden Court Theatre.

You can book yourself into the Inverness Student Hotel, or if you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, spend the weekend at the Lochside Hostel right on the banks of Loch Ness.

Night at The Museum: Fantasy Scotland – 24th November 7-10pm

Photo courtesy of McCann (2017)

Inspired by the University of Glasgow’s new postgraduate course, English Literature: Fantasy, the Hunterian Museum will bring some of your favourite mythical and historical figures to life with performances, games and treasure hunts. Between all the fun and games, you can always grab a pint with Peter Pan at museum bar. The event is free; however, tickets must be booked in advance.