Folklore and the Fairy Hill

Published: 4th July 2017

John Muir Trust land manager Liz Auty explores some of the history and mystery associated with Schiehallion

It towers over the heart of Scotland, its unmistakeable conical peak visible across vast distances. Schiehallion, whose name derives from the Galeic Sith Chaillean, which means ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’.

Liz Auty Schiehalion

* A mysterious mountain with many moods - Mellow Yellow  - when the colours of autumn are truly beautiful and stags can be heard roaring in Glen Mhor.

For many centuries, this landscape was held in awe, probably because of the network of caves on the underlying band of limestone which runs along Gleann Mor on the south side of the mountain.

Perhaps the most most famous of these caves is Uamh Tom a’ Mhor-fir – Cave of the Hillock of the Great Man – which was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. The caves inhabitants, it was said were fairies and other supernatural beings, including the Great Man, Tom a’ Mhor.

The Reverend Robert MacDonald in his Statistical Account for Scotland 1845 described  a “remarkable cave called Tom-a-mhorair, believed to be full of chambers or separate apartments, and that, as soon as a person advances a few yards, he comes to a door, which, the moment he enters, closes, as it opened, of its own accord, and prevents his returning.”

According to Malcom Ferguson in his 1891 book Rambles in Breadalbane Schiehallion was also believed, to be the venue for an annual gathering of the ancient tribes of Glenlyon, Rannoch and Strathtummel and the surrounding areas “presided over by the beautiful and accomplished Queen Mab, gorgeously arrayed in her favourite green silk robes, with her abundant crop of beautiful golden-yellow hair waving in long ringlets over her shoulder down to her waist.”

Queen Mab is described in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as “the fairies' midwife”.

Schiehallion was also said to be a favourite haunt of the mythical Cailleach Bheur, or the Blue Witch, who appeared in Hallowe’en to usher in the winter.  “Her face was blue with cold, her hair white with frost and the plaid that wrapped her bony shoulders was grey as the winter fields,” wrote AD Cunningham in Tales of Rannoch, published in 1989. According to folklore she would catch out unwary travellers, her icy blast freezing them to death.

Schiehalion heather in August

* A mysterious mountain with many moods - Magical Mauve - when the ground is purple with heather and full of the scent of its flowers

On the South side of the mountain, there is a well– Fuaran na h-Inghinn – where the young people would run to on May Day, giving offerings to the fairies so they could gain the healing powers from its waters.

Schiehallion is undoubtedly a really special place, where some people feel a sense of otherworldy presence. There is certainly tangible archeological evidence of the ancient peoples who lived here, including  a cup marked stone, and hut circles. More recent activity is also revealed by farming ruins, including old sheilings.

For me, however, the real magic of the place is expressed in the birds which appear in springtime and the happy faces of people who have conquered the mountain, whether under sunshine and blue skies, or on a dismal wet and grey day when every step has been a challenge.

I like to think that that the fairy folk would approve of the work that we do in this special landscape.

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