Scottish Death Omens and Beheaded Boyds


There’s a chill in the air, pumpkins lounge on porches, waiting to be given wicked grins, and I am in the mood for something spooky. Fortunately for me, Scottish lore is full of the otherworldly.

Allow me to set the scene for today’s topic:

800px-Unnamed--ec83790b15-975x550You are lying in bed when you are suddenly awoken by a strange noise. The night is dark; darker than most modern people can probably imagine. There are no street lights shining through your window, no red gleam from an alarm clock sitting on your nightstand, just inky blackness all around. You hear the sound again–a knocking. It is a dull, heavy sound, not the light tap of a friend come to call. You shut your eyes and pray there won’t be a third. But then it comes, a final knocking, and you know…someone is about to die.

Death knocks are just one of many Scottish death omens. There are small ones: losing a tooth, an itchy nose, ringing ears. Some have to do with animals: hearing a cock crow or a dog bark at night. Others come with visions: seeing a funeral procession pass by that no one else can see or blue lights floating in the night sky. But my favorite is the Bean Nighe.

Bean Nighe: The Washer Woman

The Bean Nighe is a Scottish fairy. Before you get the image of cute little winged pixies in your head, think again. Scottish fairies are not to be trifled with. They are Voldemort scary. Seriously, you’re not even supposed to say the word “fairy.” “The Good Neighbors” or “Fair Folk” is a much safer choice.

BansheeWell, this particular fairy is a type of bean sith or as you’re most likely familiar, banshee. You’ll find her in abandoned streams, washing blood from the shrouds of those who are about to die. She is the spirit of a woman who died giving birth, doomed to her deathly laundering until the day she would have otherwise died.

Sometimes she appears as a beautiful woman. Other times, not so much. She often appears as a hag with a single nostril, a giant protruding tooth, and webbed feet. She’ll be dressed in green (typical fairy attire) and have long, hanging breasts (don’t judge, she just gave birth). It’s important you recognize her for what she is, because if you’re clever, you might just profit from the encounter.

The Bean Nighe will answer three questions for you, but only if you answer three of her questions first. If you’re bold and manage to sneak up and suckle one of her breasts, she’ll grant you a wish. But be careful. If  she manages to touch you with her shroud, you might just find it was meant for you. Of course, you can always remain a safe distance and just ask politely (manners matter, people). She’ll be happy to tell you who has been fated to die.

A Death Omen in the Family Tree

I am a Boyd by birth, and we Boyds are proud of our Scotch-Irish heritage. As I write this, I can feel the eye-rolls from across the pond. I realize how annoying it must be to meet an American who boldly claim, “I’m Scottish.” No I’m not Scottish. I’ve never set foot on British soil. I have the arrogance and impatience and unrelenting optimism that mark me as an American as clearly as if I had a tattoo of stars and stripes. But my heritage is Scottish, and I am proud of that fact. So suck it eye-rollers.

Dean Castle
Dean Castle 1790 after a devastating fire

Anyway, having done my fair share of geneological research, I happen to know the story of an ancestral death omen. The omen happened at Dean Castle, stronghold for the Boyd family for over 400 years. As an aside, the land was originally given to the Boyds by Robert the Bruce as a reward to Sir Robert Boyd for kicking arse at the Battle of Bannockburn. Pretty awesome, right?

Earl_of_Kilmarnock_1746Unfortunately, William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock was not so lucky. The year is 1745 and the Bonnie Prince Charlie is gunning for the throne. William joins the cause, an ill-fated decision, portended well before his death. A servant had a vision before William left for war. She saw the Earl’s head rolling down the stairs. And William’s head did roll…

Execution of the Earl of Kilmarnock and Cromarty, and Lord Balmerino

He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Culloden and then shipped off to the Tower of London, where he was sentenced to a traitor’s death–to be hanged until just before death, disemboweled, made to watch his own guts be burned before his eyes, beheaded, then his body quartered.

It appears that his sentence was reduced to a mere beheading. I couldn’t find an exact reason for this. I can only guess that it is because by all accounts, he was an all around good guy. In fact, when he saw the scaffold and circumstances of his impending death, he is quoted as saying, “Mr. Home, this is terrible.” This apparently had such an affect on the people watching that even the executioners burst into tears.

With William’s death, so ended the Boyd’s time at Dean Castle, but not their legacy.  Today Dean Castle is open year round to visitors. If you visit Laigh Tower you will find a chest. Legend has it, it is the same chest used to return William’s head back to the castle.

*All photos are in the public domain


9 thoughts on “Scottish Death Omens and Beheaded Boyds

  1. In the Irish tradition, those “little people” (who are usually human-sized and often indistinguishable from humans) are known as the “Good People” out of deference (and to avoid losing cattle or kiddies).

    As far as Scottish lore goes, you can’t go wrong with Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter” or James Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man (1822) or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

    Nice post.

  2. I love cultural horror myths. There’s this segment from History Channel about urban legends/myths and it looks really spooky and neat. It’s called True Monsters and it looks like there’s some episodes online. Of the Scottish myths, my favorite is the banshee with wish-granting boobs. I want that power.

  3. A quick note re the Earl’s beheading. Hanging, drawing, and quartering was the standard method of execution in England for anyone found guilty of treason. However, in the case of members of the nobility sentenced to death, it was always replaced by beheading. A quicker death.

    1. Thank you! No wonder I couldn’t find any explanation for why the sentence was reduced–just standard business.

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