29 November 2014


Grace Banks and Sheena Blackhall. Scottish Urban Myths and Ancient Legends. History Press, 2014.

This book follows on from titles covering contemporary legends and rumours in Kent by Neil Arnold, and London by Scott Wood. However, the addition to the title of the words 'and Ancient legends' radically changes the nature and scope of the book, making it quite different from its predecessors.
Many, indeed probably most of the tales related here fall into the 'ancient legend' category and sit uneasily with the contemporary legends and rumours, even though some of them seem to have been rather self-consciously updated.

The story 'The Rocking Chair' is billed as an old Scottish legend retold in a contemporary Glasgow tower-block setting with lines like "I'll nae get a penny aff the social for ye noo", and the protagonist putting off the devil's demands to dance with her by demanding "I need a foot massage and a chiropodists and wee fishies tae nibble aff the hard skin". Apparently "I'm washing my hair" just doesn't hack it these days!

There are some urban myths here: an all-too-brief account of the Glasgow Vampire, a playground panic predating the Liverpool Leprechauns by a decade; gangland corpses entombed in the Kingston Bridge over the Clyde (plausible enough, I watch Taggart too, although I am unpersuaded by the authors' claim that 'X-rays' revealed their presence); a version of the escaped lunatic and the severed head story from Stirlingshire; and a curious chess-playing phantom hitchhiker.

The book is arranged in chapters divided regionally, which while fine for the 'ancient legends', rather hides the significance of the urban myths, which really need to be treated thematically, as Scott Wood has done in his excellent London book. However, for someone interested generally in Scottish myth, legend and off-beat history this is an interesting and often amusing collection of stories. I just think it would have been better if it had just been called something like 'Scottish Tales and Legends', leaving the urban myths, of which I am sure Scotland is replete, for another day -- John Rimmer.

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