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Scottish storytelling tradition: The Devil and the Minister


Most of my favourite folk tales to tell, whether from my local area of Dundee and Angus or further afield, involve the Devil in one way or another. I did not do this on purpose. There was no moment at which I thought to myself, “You know who’s great? Satan. I’ll go and learn every story I can about him.”

But when I reflect on my favourite stories, he’s one of the commonest threads. God rarely, if ever, makes a personal appearance in Scottish folktales, perhaps being too powerful to show his power or too sacred to be regularly invoked. But the Devil turns up both invited and uninvited. He makes impossible deals, leaves his mark on the landscape, and asks unanswerable questions. He is rarely helpful, but often hilarious, always ready with a quick answer or an unexpected trick.

In fact, considering he is supposed to be the embodiment of all evil and darkness in the world, Scottish folklore seems to be very at home with the Devil. We have a long list of nicknames for him - Auld Clootie, the Wee Man, The Earl o’ Hell, Auld Hornie, the obscure but wonderful ‘Plotcock,’ and dozens more… He’s usually known as ‘Auld’ something, and he has indeed been around for a while. Sometimes, the Devil is given a ironically positive name - the Lucky Piper, for instance, or the Gudeman. There was a tradition in some parts of Scotland known as the Gudeman’s Croft, in which a tiny corner of a field would be left uncultivated, for the use of the Devil and his various supernatural brethren. This little offering kept these chaotic forces satisfied, and prevented them from wreaking havoc on the whole harvest.

Scotland, particularly the east coast where I have lived my whole life, has a reputation for a strict attitude to religion, a Presbyterian worldview which spills out of the kirk and into all aspects of life. Religion and folklore are often set up as natural enemies. Is the Devil’s constant presence in our folklore just a remnant of religious officials telling us that all supernatural presence - including our very belief in it - is evil? The situation, I reckon, is messier than that. Partly because, as the folklorist Katherine Briggs among others has pointed out, the goat-like elements of the Devil’s popular appearance, his horns and cloven hooves, suggest earlier roots even than Christianity. But also because there is a great tradition of storytelling and literature which sits alongside Scottish religion - yes, even the dour east coast Presbyterian kind.

This goes back to the Reformation itself, when the Wedderburn brothers of Dundee made radical use of popular ballads in their religious mission (and one of them, James, caught the king’s ire for ‘counterfooting the conjouring of a ghaist’.) It also feels worth mentioning that it was another of them, Robert Wedderburn, who wrote what is considered to be one of the earliest descriptions of Scottish traditional storytelling in the Complaynt of Scotland, in which he describes shepherds passing the time by sharing tales with one another.

If there are lines at all between storytelling, literature and religion in Scotland, they are near impossible to draw. I wonder if the Scottish Reformation’s focus on literacy - the belief that you should be able to read, particularly the Bible, and have a relationship with God on your own terms - has influenced our storytelling traditions to include a strong awareness of the business of creating narrative, of what is story and how easily reality can be shifted.

So, I have sympathy for the Devil, but also, as I get older and get to know my stories from different angles, for the minister. The minister, like the Devil, is another regular fixture in eastern Scotland’s storytelling tradition, and they often appear together. These twin stars of the Scottish conscience wrestle with the question of what it means to be evil, or good, or human, in literature from James Hogg’s 1824 Confessions of a Justified Sinner to James Robertson’s 2006 Testament of Gideon Mack.

In folklore, ministers - often named ones who can be found on gravestones and in record books - appear sometimes as comic figures and sometimes as strange and powerful go-betweens, whose particular knowledge opens them up to more regular dealings with the supernatural than the rest of us. Perhaps they really are. Think of Robert Kirk, the very real 17th century minister at Aberfoyle in Perthshire and author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, who knew the ways of the wee folk so intimately that legend has it they spirited him away to join them before he could publish it. After all, storytelling is a key part of the business of being a minister - what else is at the heart of a good sermon? The minister can be a mysterious figure, but they are also someone very ordinary, someone woven into the everyday fabric of the community.

And so, it seems, is the Devil. This brings me back to one of the most appealing aspects of the Devil in Scottish storytelling - he seems to really care about the little details. Somehow, Auld Clootie knows the ins and outs of every community, picking his moment to appear with an irresistible offer or wreak fiery vengeance just when our protagonist is desperate or our enemy growing too confident. Although he doesn’t usually improve things much, there’s something touching about his willingness to hurl himself into every farmhouse kitchen or ferryman’s wake between Dundee and Montrose - and far further afield, of course. I’d be surprised if there was any book in the Folk Tales series in which he doesn’t appear in some guise.

If (as the great Irish folklorist Henry Glassie put it) the parish is the cosmos, the Devil is the dark matter at the heart of it. His presence in our stories is a necessary outlet for the darkness and chaos in the world. It also reminds us of our human ability to live with and despite it - even when it comes from within us - if we can remember to be kind, brave, clever or daft as the occasion calls for. But I think he does something else, too. The Devil’s presence in local legends brings unpredictability to familiar scenes and stories, reminding us of how slippery our grip on truth and history can be. And for that, at least, I suppose we have to give him credit.

By Erin Farley

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