The Wise Man of Kingussie

or How Scotland came to lose the Caledonian Forest

Once upon a time when Scotland belonged to the Picts, a Norse king first set eyes on the great pine forests in the kingdom of Caledonia. When he saw their great girths (some as much as 12 feet) and compared them with the trees in his own kingdom, he was deeply jealous. Back in Norway, he brooded day and night; he could not eat or hunt or fight or sail for thinking of those fine trees in that far away land. At last he sought out the fiercest monster in all Scandinavia, said to have been his stepmother, his Muime, who lived in a dark ravine in a distant mountain. She had the head of a woman, the body of a whale and the wings of an eagle, and it took all the king's courage to summon her forth. In a loud voice he commanded her to destroy the Caledonian forests.

Drawing of mythological monster

The monster, who enjoyed nothing better than slaughter and destruction, pondered on the task and finally thought up a plan. She gathered together a great bundle of fire and, flying high above the clouds, made her way across the North Sea to Caledonia. She flung fire on Sutherland and some on Ross-shire and soon the mighty trees beneath her were crackling like dry kindling. She crossed the Moray Firth and dropped some on Inverness and some on Moray and the great pines there began to blaze. Then she reached the Grampian Mountains.

The Picts could do nothing. They all knew the monster was up lurking behind the clouds but no one could see her. In desperation they sent messengers to the Wise Man of Kingussie who lived in a cave in the Grampians. 'What are we to do?' they asked. 'If our forests go, so will our homes, our shelter and protection.'

Archer drawing

The Wise Man of Kingussie thought hard. Then he had an idea. That night he looked up his spell books and set his cauldron a-bubbling. He told the Picts to assemble all their beasts- sheep, goats, pigs and cattle- in a nearby field and, on the count of three, make them baa and bleat and squeal and moo all at the same time. What a noise they made! The monster was so curious that she poked her head through the clouds to see what was going on. The Wise Man was waiting for her. He shot her in the eye with the magic silver arrow he had fashioned by moonlight, and she fell dead with a thunderous thump out of the sky.

At that very moment the spell was broken and all the forest fires died out and luckily some of the precious trees survived. Perhaps this is why the name Kingussie means the Head of the Pine Forest.

An old tale re-told by Elizabeth Sutherland


 

This story was recorded by the folklorist, Otta F. Swire, in her book, The Highlands and their Legends Oliver and Boyd, 1963.

Elizabeth Sutherland is also a keen folklorist, and is the author of several books on the Brahan Seer, including Ravens and Black Rain: the Story of Highland Second Sight (Constable, 1985). She lives on the Black Isle in Ross-shire.

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