Can confirm: Scots tell one hell of a story. When I got to visit just before the cold really embraced the highlands, it seemed like while everyone was well-versed in their history—and I do mean everyone—in the case of a story, Scots do it right. They state the facts, but they don’t dwell on them.
For example, I asked the friendly bartender in Inverness, “Can you tell us the story of Sawney Bean?” He looked at me so bored while he wiped out a pint glass and said, “What, you mean the facking inbred cannibal clan?”
I laughed, and he continued, “That’s about the story then. They killed and ate travelers till the English went and rounded them up. Do you want to hear a ghost story?”
I answered, “Always.” And he told them to us until the bar closed. Then he walked us to the cellar where a medium told him two women and a man were following him around.
“They mean ye no harm,” she said. It still, understandably freaked him out, so the patron locked herself in the cellar, talked to them, walked back up the stairs, and told him, “They said they’ll leave ye alone. My husband says I’ve got to stop telling people what I see. It scares them.”
Our bartender friend locked up the bar and walked us literally across the street to show us the site in the graveyard where they executed Jacobite hospital patients after the battle of Culloden. “This stone, with the fork. It’s where they rested the barrel of the rifle. And Leakey’s bookstore, that was the hospital.”
I’m an American with a love for spooky stories, especially when they’re grounded in actual history. America is young—all we have here is space. By that I mean, if we want to learn about folklore, most of us have to travel to get there, to New Orleans or Boston or thereabouts. The rest of the stories are one-offs. The stories exist, but we’re far from inundated with them.
These guys in the highlands, they’re living in it. So, it’s no leap to say that folklore of the area surrounds day-to-day life. (How is it that in a 10-minute drive on the wrong side of the road, we saw a Tesco superstore, the Witches Stone in front of a police station, and a Pictish-engraved standing stone whose origins no one knows?)
And that’s just the Scottish Highlands. We haven’t even touched on the folklore of Ireland, which is Halloween’s origin. The stories truly abound, and if you want the straight dope, I recommend Celtic Weird: Tales of Wicked Folklore and Dark Mythology by Johnny Mains, or the collections of Leonard Low, including The Lowdown on Witches.
But that’s not what we’re here for. In this post, I want to share with you seven horror books inspired by Gaelic horror. We’re talking Beltane, Samhain, kelpies, changelings, wee folk, Satan in Scotland, and more—and Outlander fans buckle up, because you know fairy rings aren’t far in the distance.
Goblin Market and Other Poems
This poem is more of an appetizer—pun intended—to the list itself. The folklore tells it that when a human gets abducted to the fairy realm, there’s no return if you eat their food. Here’s what happens when sisters Lizzie and Laura regularly encounter the temptations of the goblins (read: fairies) from the glen.
(Aside: I know it seems unlikely that people might subscribe to the ideas of a fairy world/the wee folk/goblins… for a true crime account of how these beliefs manifest in the modern world, please see the recommended reading of The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials Of Bridget Cleary by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates.
Speaking of the wee folk, one of their favorite practices is to steal a human child and replace it with one of their own fairy children. The changeling looks and sounds identical, but they’re not. Revisionist history—and scientific practice—tells us that these “changelings” existed, but they were not fairy children, but rather sick children, either physically or mentally. That’s what Apollo Kagwa thinks when his wife continually says, “It’s not a baby,” about their own newborn. But Emma’s diagnosis does not waver, and she takes dire measures to save her own, real child.
I’ll just say up-front that Sarah Moss is the GOAT when it comes to folk horror, but this novel is my favorite of hers. Historian Anna Bennett goes with her husband and their two small children to his ancestral home in the Outer Hebrides, a place so remote that it’s accessible only by boat. (Did you know the Scottish Highlands only had roads built to it in the 1700s? Before that it was like, best of luck my dude.)
Anna and Giles are both academics with manuscripts due, but because Giles ensures that all the housework falls to her—as does the task of consoling the night terrors of their seven-year-old—Anna makes little writing progress. And then she finds a baby’s skeleton in their garden…and a stack of old letters in the attic.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
You know I had to include the textbook example of Gothic folk horror. It’s the early 18th century, and both superstition and Calvinism have a strong hold on the people of Scotland. Our protagonist, Robert Wringham, has been declared by his adoptive (possibly actual) father, the reverend, to be Elect. Predestination is the most relevant tenet of Calvinism in this book, mainly that God has his chosen few, and because they are predestined to heaven, they can in practice do no wrong.
So, Robert gets this title from his reverend father, and almost immediately a suspicious friend known only as Gil-Martin shows up, Bible in hand. The catch? The Bible's text is in red. If this ain’t “the Devil in Scotland” trope fully exploited, you show me a better example.
The Butcher’s Blessing
This novel is set in the wilds of Ireland, among a remote family whose patriarch is one of the select seven of an ancient group called the butchers. For a full season every year, they roam from farm to farm performing the ritual slaughter of cattle. But this book follows the daughter of the butcher, Úna, from 1996 to present day as she makes sense of the ritual.
This book was the foundation of my obsession with folk horror. I had a recovered memory of reading it when Professor Lupin let loose the boggart from that chest in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (and by the way, almost all of the most fun mythological elements in that series are inspired by Gaelic folklore). I remember being completely sucked into this YA novel, sort of the way that the boggart itself gets sucked into the rolltop desk in this book. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Emily and Jess Volnik’s family inherits the remote Castle Keep, and with it, the resident boggart who has been pranking its inhabitants for generations. And then the boggart gets trapped in the rolltop desk and sent to the Volniks’ home in Canada.
The Wicker Man
Just to truly drive home my point that folklore interacts with contemporary life, let’s talk about The Wicker Man. If you’re a horror fan, you know the 1973 cult classic movie starring Christopher Lee. You know the festival on the northernmost point of Scotland that culminates in the burning of the effigy.
But you might not know that the director and writer of The Wicker Man film found so much interest in the movie’s release that five years later they released a novel form of the film. Fascinating stuff—it’s almost always the other way around, where the book is the IP for the film adaptation. But not this one. Here, we have an ouroboros—technically the snake eating its tail is a piece of Scandi folklore, but a quick glance at the map will show why Scotland was regularly subject to Viking raids. It’s folk horror all the way down, y’all.