Scottish history is bloody, and so it should be little surprise to anyone that much of the folklore of this land is also tinged with blood and death. From murderous water spirits to highland shapeshifters, there are many creatures in Scotland that will take a life if given the chance. Redcaps are no different, in that respect, but they are a little unique.
Malevolent counterparts to the household brownies, redcaps are more likely to cause a mess than clean one up.
A Bloody Legacy
The Borders of Scotland are a particularly blood-soaked region; in this region, and in the parallel border region of England, skirmishes, battles, and cattle theft were common throughout the Medieval period and continued albeit less fiercely, into the Early Modern period.
When you consider this, the nature of the redcap makes sense. Also called 'bloody caps', redcaps are murderous goblins who live in ruined castles along the border of Scotland and England. They hunt travellers and those who wander into their ruins with glee.
Taking the form of short, stocky old men with sharp teeth and claws, wearing armoured boots and carrying pikestaff. They drench their caps in the blood of their victims. As grisly as this is, it has a reason; redcaps must keep their cap wet with fresh blood, for if their cap dries they will die.
Despite their short stature and heavy gear, redcaps move with inhuman speed; it is said that it is impossible to outrun one.
Travellers beware! Do not enter the ruins of the border regions, for if you do, you may be pelted with stones to drive you back. Should you choose not to flee, resident redcaps will descend and paint their caps with your blood... of course, even if you do run there's a chance they'll chase you down anyway. Grisly!
Robin Redcap, or Redcap Sly
Folklore is often complex and too often there is no certainty surrounding the myths that crop up. The story of Robin Redcap is one such example. For a start, there is disagreement about his very name, but whether he is called Robin Redcap or Redcap Sly, the story goes that he was a familiar to Lord William de Soulis (or Soules) of Hermitage Castle in Roxburgh, Scotland.
The facts are mixed with folklore when it comes to Lord de Soulis. You see, William de Soulis was a real man who had real problems with Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. A relation of the powerful Comyn family (who the Bruce had a tempestuous relationship with, especially after murdering John Comyn, Earl of Badenoch in a church in 1306), he claimed allegiance with both the English and the Scots during his life. In death, he was conisdered a traitor; he was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring against the life of the King by the Black Parliament of August 1320.
In history, he is an important player in warfare and politics, in folklore he is a little more; a sorcerer, a practitioner of the black arts, and a truly vile rogue.
As a part of his foul magic, the story goes, he conjured a redcap as a familiar. Some stories call him Robin Redcap, others call him Redcap Sly, but either way he was said to rampage around the de Soulis lands. The redcap promised William de Soulis a charmed life and told him that bladed weapons could not harm him.
This is where history and folk tales become confusingly intertwined. You see, while it's true that Lord de Soulis was brought to justice in 1320 for treason, other tales claim that he was not imprisoned for life but instead condemned to death for trying to kidnap a young woman, murdering her father when he intervened. The Laird of Mangerton was said to have prevented de Soulis from making off with his captive after the murder, and was later stabbed to death by the Lord at a banquet at Hermitage castle.
According to the folk tales it was this atrocity that prompted Robert the Bruce to sanction his execution. Depending on which tale you believe he either said "boil him if you please, but let me hear no more of him" in jest, dispatching horsemen to prevent such cruelty when he realized his words had been taken seriously, or was reduced to this barbarism by the redcaps promise. No weapon could harm the Lord, some say, and so he had to be boiled alive.
The (Not So) Bloody Truth
The truth is that Lord William de Soulis ended his days in Dumbarton Castle in disgrace. After being found guilty of conspiring to kill the king, he faced forfeiture, losing all of his lands and titles, and was imprisoned for the rest of his natural life. His precise cause of death seems to be unknown, but unless we're missing a wealth of records he certainly wasn't boiled alive!
As for legends of his outrageous cruelty to his people and servants, there are those who believe that this is a case of mistaken, or merging, identity. Some think this may have been Sir Ranulf (or Randolph) de Soulis of Liddel who is believed to have been murdered by his servants in 1207. The truth of this mystery may never be uncovered, but it just goes to show that folklore is not all fanciful; when faced with real villains, many people simply incorporated them into the tales they told each other to pass the darkening nights.
The Other Faces of the Redcap
Folklore is complex and often changeable thing; Redcaps are a good example of this duality. For example, they seem to exist in parallel with creatures called 'powrie' or 'dunters' which also inhabit ruins in the border region; these creatures are noisy sprites that make sounds akin to beating flax. According to Henderson, a well-known folklorist, when this sound goes on for longer than usual or becomes increasingly louder it predicts death.
Henderson also recounts tales of Picts who, in building, the castles used human blood to purify the stones, perhaps drawing in malevolent presences. This is unlikely to be true; the Picts seem to have been most active in the North East of Scotland in their day and were not known for building huge stone dwellings like the castles found in the borders region. It is an interesting tale, though.
What's more, there are mentions of redcaps that are not so bloodthirsty; in Grandtully, Perthshire, there is a legend of a redap in residence at the castle. Not dangerous, but benevolent he is said to bestow good fortune on any who see him.
Redcaps Outside of Scotland
There's no denying that folklore shares themes across the world, and in some cases there are tales and creatures that seem to have close relationships with those found in other cultures.
For example, there are creatures similar to the Scottish redcaps in the Netherlands and, of course, in Ireland. Irish Redcaps are incredibly similar to their Scottish cousins, which is not surprising, but their caps are made from human skin. However, while the Dutch redcap, called "Kaboutermannekin", are similar in name to their Scottish counterparts they have more in common with brownies. Kaboutermannekin wear red from head to foot and do chores around the house. They light fires in the night and are generally helpful.
If you want to read more about Scottish folklore, consider the other instalments in this series: