Witches and Animals in the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archives

Posted on October 31, 2023 | in School of Scottish Studies Archive, SSSA, Uncategorized, Volunteers | by

Nicole Deacon is a volunteer in the Civic Engagement Team. As someone who has always been interested in all things witches, witch trials and witchcraft since she was very young, this was a topic that she was drawn to when she was first started volunteering with us and researching stories in the university’s archives at the age of sixteen. Nicole wanted to educate people about the role witches and folklore played in our history. We thought today being Hallowe’en would be a good day to share some of the results of that research with you.

When I first started looking into ideas about witches in the archives, I found that there are two main sources with a lot of information: the Tobar an Dualchais website which contains many sound recordings from the School of Scottish Studies Archives (as well as The Canna Collection and BBC Radio Gàidheal) and the Carmicheal Watson Collection. Both of these sources give us a great insight into Scotland’s rich history of folklore.

One thing that I noticed about many of the stories I came across was the connection between witches or witchcraft and animals. In this blog post, I’d like to share some examples of stories which feature this this connection by telling us about witches who change shape into animals or beings who can shapeshift between animal and human such as Selkies and Kelpies.

Witches Changing into Animals
For hundreds of years there have been stories of witches having ‘familiars’ that are spirits which take the form of animals like dogs, cats, wolves, goats, birds, rodents, foxes, insects and hares. Witches were said to be able to take on the likeness of their familiar and assume their form. Hares seem to appear particularly frequently as familiars of witches, perhaps because they move so quickly and are hard to catch.[1] Some legends say that when a hunter shot a hare, he would go to find his catch and find he’d shot a woman. Others say that the witch would say speak simple words to transform into a hare or drink powerful potions made from hare bones.[2] The SSSA recordings on Tobar an Dulchais feature many mentions of witches becoming hares. For example, in one story, a witch was said to be able to turn herself into a hare and cause all sorts of mischief. One night some men went out and shot at a disturbance without seeing what it was. The next morning, the alleged witch was found in bed with a gunshot wound.

Story about a witch transforming herself into a hare, Nan Marshall (Contributor), Dr Emily Lyle (Fieldworker), ref. SA1974.171.B9, School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh

Cats also appear frequently in these stories, like this recording speaking of a witch trial in Caithness that came about after a woman lost her leg at the same time as a cat was killed over night and its leg cut off. The trial that resulted was the last big witch trial in Caithness.

An Eighteenth Century Witch Trial Following a Plague of Cats, Donald Grant (Contributor), Prof. Tadaaki Miyake (Fieldworker), ref. SA1972.240.B5 , School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh

Another animal that often appears is crows, given that in many different cultures from Norse to Celt to Native American, they are highly associated with death and have been known to act as messengers between the living and those beyond. Crows are very aware of danger; they know how to adapt quickly to new predators and lean to not only protect themselves but their young from bad situations. Many practicing witches use crow feathers or an image of a crow in protection spells. For a lot of native American tribes’, crows are a symbol of good luck and wisdom due to their intelligence. Celtic folklore also holds crows as signs of wisdom and good fortune.[3]
In one story on Tobar an Dulchais, a young woman attempts to escape her suitors by turning into a crow. She is later blamed by one man for bad luck in the community and accused of being able to shape-shift into a horse as well as a crow. After leaving her husband, she is plagued by crows cawing that only she can hear.

A Shape Shifting Witch Met her End, Donald Grant (Contributor), Prof. Tadaaki Miyake (Fieldworker), ref. SA1972.241.B6, School of Scottish Studies Archive, University of Edinburgh


Image taken from: Baby Harbor Seal | Openverse

In Northern Scotland, you may hear stories about a water creature called the selkie. Selkies are often, although not exclusively, women reflected in the fact that in Gaelic stories, the word for mermaids and for selkies is the same: maighdeannn-mhara or ‘the maiden of the sea’.[3]

When they are in the sea, selkies live as a seals but on land they transform into women by taking their seal skin off. To go back to their true form, they must put their seal skin back on. Often selkies are trapped by men who steal their seal skins, forcing them to live on land as a human women. Selkies are said to be good wives but very sad. Sometimes in the stories, they give birth to children but if they recovers their skin, they will leave them to return to the ocean. According to the tales, male selkies are very handsome in human form and women find them very seductive. Male selkies will seek out unhappy wives of fishermen who wait for their husband to return.

There are several stories about selkies in the School of Scottish Studies sound archives. One story that takes place on Hallowe’en features a young man who travels to an island where he had heard there were many selkies congregating in a cave. He watches them as they strip off their skins and turn into men and women. They hid their skins while they dance and sing and the young man takes the opportunity to steal the skin of a seal girl he is attracted to. As a result, she is left behind after the dance and marries the man who stole her skin. Many years later her son finds the skin and gives it back to her. She returns to the sea and after that her children would often spot a particularly pretty seal in the waves who would wave to them.

A young man watched the selkies dance, Brucie Henderson (Contributor), Alan Bruford (Fieldworker), ref. SA1970.243, School of Scottish Studies Archive, University of Edinburgh

Image taken from: The Kelpies | Openverse
Unlike the kind selkies, kelpies are known to be very dangerous creatures. In their horse form they lure innocent bystanders (particularly children) into the water then when the person gets on the kelpies back they dive into the water and drown them. The person gets magically stuck on the kelpies back so that they can’t escape.[4]
One recording in the collection tells of a young lad who had a close escape with a water kelpie during a pearl-fishing trip in Deeside. A tall, dark man lures him to the other side of the river but too late, he notices that the man’s feet beneath the water are cloven hooves….

A Traveller who was pearl-fishing was nearly caught by a kelpie., Stanley Robertson (Contributor), Barbara McDermitt (Fieldworker), ref. SA1981.23.3, School of Scottish Studies Archive, University of Edinburgh.

These are only some of the examples that I came across. Listening to, and reading, these stories gives us an insight into these women and creature’s lives. Was their shapeshifting a way for them to escape blame, to avoid danger or was it for others to cast them as scapegoats?Although many people may not believe in witches or the kelpies, I believe there’s got to be some truth in the stories and legends that are all over the world.

If you want to read more about the different Hallowe’en customs recorded in the School of Scottish Studies Archives, you can read this blog post here which talks about many different customs from burning hazelnuts to reading eggs.




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