Scots beasts and bogeymen rediscovered in new book

The Pentland Imp from the Book of Beasties. Picture: Contributed
The Pentland Imp from the Book of Beasties. Picture: Contributed
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It was the terrifying bogeyman said to stalk the shores of Leith draped from head to toe in a coat of rattling shells.

Now the story behind the Seafield Shellycoat has been rediscovered in a new book detailing the myths and legends of the Capital and beyond.

Belle Robertson,author of 'The Book of Beasties'. Picture: Jane Barlow

Belle Robertson,author of 'The Book of Beasties'. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Book of Beasties, written by Murrayfield author Belle Robertson, examines the otherworldly creatures said to haunt the hills, glens and cities of Scotland – from naughty imps to bone-crushing giants.

Purporting to be the long-lost work of Great Clan Chieftain Lord Dunteviot – and cheekily claiming to have been pulled together in 1710 – the book boasts more than 30 illustrations detailing creatures lost to mythology.

Forgotten folklore uncovered in the Capital include tales of the White Stag of Holyrood and the mischievous Pentland Imp – as well as the elusive shell-clad Shellycoat believed to haunt Edinburgh’s busy docklands.

According to local legend, the Seafield Shellycoat made its home inside a barnacle-encrusted boulder – dubbed the Penny Bap stone – that was later moved when Leith Docks expanded.

Although versions of a similar story exist elsewhere in Scotland – not least further south, where the ghoul appears in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrely of the Scottish Border – Edinburgh’s Shellycoat appears to have been particularly active, with local children daring each other to run round its rocky home.

If they managed three rings around the boulder while chanting “Shelleycoat, Shelleycoat, gang awa’ hame, I cry nar yer mercy, I fear na yer name” the spirit was said to appear before them.

Some nights, the story goes, the creature’s “menacing laugh” could even be heard echoing over the dark waves.

The White Stag of Holyrood, meanwhile, relates to the legend of King David I, who gave chase to the beast while out on a hunt around Arthur’s Seat in the early 12th century.

After being thrown from his horse and coming face-to-face with the angry creature, he began praying to God – after which a fiery cross appeared between the stag’s antlers before it vanished from sight.

A grateful King David showed his thanks to God by founding Holyrood Abbey on the site of his near-death experience.

Traces of the legend of the White Stag can still be seen throughout Holyrood and neighbouring Canongate, where the noble beast and the holy cross can be spotted in the district’s coat of arms.

But Ms Robertson admits her tale of the picnic-stealing Pentland Imp, who snatches jewellery, chocolate and sweet buns from unsuspecting walkers, has less basis in the history books. Loosely based on old shepherd’s stories, the troublemaking imp – who is terrified of people with ginger hair – was largely a figment of her own imagination.

“He’s just a sort of tribute to my home town,” she said. “But he’s based on myths and legends shared by shepherds on the hills.”

The 36-year-old, who grew up in Corstorphine, revealed she was inspired to pen her book – which has illustrations by Canadian fantasy artist Larry MacDougall – after living in Brittany and seeing how the French celebrated their local myths. She said: “I thought I could do the same thing for Scotland. Visualising Scottish myths and legends is a part of our history – but we’ve sort of lost it. We really do have such a strong Celtic culture and we don’t really do that much with it.

“We’re a country rich in these myths and legends. It’s about making history a bit more imaginative. It’s all about that sort of Lord of the Rings thing, and the link to that fantasy.”