Selkies, kelpies and Whisky Galore! Hunker down for the Highlands and islands’ greatest myths, legends and cultural delights | Spirit of the Highlands and Islands

Argyll & The Isles – ghostly goings on
Ghost stories are at their best in the darker winter months, so what better time to stay in a haunted castle? Check in to the Caithness Room at the very top of Barcaldine Castle near Oban, a luxurious bedroom that comes with a dressing room in the turret, French antique furniture – and the ghost of Donald Campbell, laird of Barcaldine, who was viciously slain by his enemy Stewart of Appin in the 1600s. Dare you turn the light out?

Further south, Dunadd Fort stands sentry above Kilmartin Glen and was once the crowning-place of kings. Here, each new ruler of Dal Riata (the ancient Gaelic kingdom of western Scotland) was blessed by an abbot from Iona as they placed their foot inside a rock imprint. This ancient footprint can still be seen – and stood in – at the fort’s summit to this day.

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The Isle of Arran – faerie folk
Enchanting forests and ancient stone circles make Arran a beguiling island to explore, and one said to be a favourite of the faerie folk to boot. Since they love cairns, stone circles, stepping stones and wooded glens, most of the island is ripe for a sighting, but the trail through the woods at Brodick Castle is a good place to start as long as you leave time to get to Tor na’ Shian, or the mound of the fairies, in Glen Cloy, where the fairy queen sometimes sits at twilight. Out on the moors look out for tough circles of tufty grass – fairy dance spots perhaps …

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The Highlands – Nessie, and Lizzie
You’ve heard of Nessie – the infamous monster said to live in Loch Ness – but the Highland region is home to many more tales of aquatic spirits, passed down over generations. In Loch Lochy, 15 miles north of Fort William, you’ll find Lizzie, first “seen” in the 1920s and, with her three humps, bearing a striking resemblance to Nessie. Perhaps most haunting of all is the tale of the kelpies, mystical water horses that seek to drown those who come too close, and are tamed only if their bridles are seized. These creatures are said to inhabit Loch Quoich and Loch Arkaig, both just west of Loch Lochy, where their unearthly wailing warns of an approaching storm.

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Lochindorb Castle in Highland Scotland
Lochindorb Castle, once home to the Wolf of Badenoch. Photograph: Tim Oliver/Alamy

Moray Speyside – stormy waters
On an island in Lochindorb (Gaelic for the “loch of trouble”) stands a castle, its stout stone walls whipped by the wind and crumbling gently. This was once the fortress of Alexander Stewart, or the Wolf of Badenoch, who terrorised Moray in 1390, setting alight the towns of Forres and Elgin after he was excommunicated from the church for dumping the wife who could not bear a child in favour of a mistress. According to legend, one night, the Wolf was visited by a man cloaked in black, who engaged him in a game of chess, declaring checkmate as an almighty storm raged. In the morning, the Wolf was found dead within the castle, but what happened that night remains unknown. It’s certainly an atmospheric spot, especially in the autumn and winter, and you can ponder the Wolf’s fate from the single-track road that winds around the eastern edge of the water, or take a hike around the loch’s edge.

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Orkney – seal folk and seal pups
Orcadians love to spin a yarn and the islands are home to their own Folklore and Storytelling Centre, where stories are shared around a peat fire. Most famous is that of the selkies, or seal folk. These shape-shifters appear in human form, dancing on moonlit beaches or basking in the sun on outlying skerries. Selkie folk are reputed to be seductive creatures, and missing women were often said to have joined their selkie lovers out at sea.

Since an estimated 15% of the world’s seal population make their home here in Orkney, a coastal walk often means coming across an inquisitive seal or two basking on the rocks or bobbing in the waters offshore. Autumn is pupping season so remote beaches are ideal for spotting mothers with their new babies, while North Ronaldsay (the northernmost of the Orkney islands) is the most bankable place for a sighting, especially around the lighthouse.

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Eriskay beach South Uist, Outer Hebrides
Bottles of whisky were washed ashore on Eriskay’s sandy beaches after the SS Politician foundered. Photograph: Keith Taylor/Alamy

Outer Hebrides – whisky and wintry walks
Few in the Outer Hebrides might admit to pilfering whisky from the wreckage of the SS Politician, the cargo ship carrying 260,000 bottles that ran aground on Eriskay in 1941, but legend and the 1949 film Whisky Galore! beg to differ. Local lore has it that people came from as far north as Lewis to the waters and beaches of Eriskay, South Uist and Barra to “salvage” the whisky – and managed to make off with about 28,000 bottles. This was 1941 and amid wartime rationing they decided the whisky was there for the taking. The police thought differently, raiding crofts and homes, but very few bottles were ever found …

Take a wintery walk on the beaches here – the white sands of Coilleag a’Phrionnsa on South Uist are said to be where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot on Scottish soil, then retreat to Am Politician for a warming dram – and to see some of the bottles that were washed ashore from SS Politician (ask at the bar).

Other local spirits are available throughout the isles, including Abhainn Dearg’s youthful whiskies on Lewis’s west coast and gins made from island botanicals at the Isle of Harris distillery in Tarbert.

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Shetland – beware the little people
Shetland’s standing stones are said to be petrified trows. Smaller than humans, trows live in the hills and cause trouble by night – snatching fiddlers to play at trowie gatherings or replacing healthy babies with sick ones – but if caught by the sun, they turn to stone. There are even stories of fiddle players being taken by the trows only to appear 100 years later, unaware that any time has passed at all.

Visit the “trowie knowe” – where the little people live – at the Shetland Museum and hear folklore from around the isles, or head north to Fetlar, where the stones of Haltadans are said to be a gathering of trows, petrified while playing the fiddle and dancing.

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Where will your next Scottish adventure take you? Discover the Highlands and islands this winter

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