For the unwary visitor to their lair, redcaps can be deeply dangerous creatures. These malevolent little folk are classified ‘goblins’ and that’s a word that’s rarely attached to anything positive. While J.K. Rowling’s redcaps live in ‘northern Europe, they’re most common in Border folklore.
Since they’re so dangerous, and I want to keep you safe so you can keep reading my blog, let’s find out more about them…
Where Do Redcaps Hang Out?
According to 19th-century folklorist William Henderson, redcaps live in the string of ruined castles stretching along the border between England and Scotland. They favour the castles that saw violent or tyrannical events. Some believe his name comes from his tendency to soak his cap in fresh blood, hence his alternative name, Bloody Cap.
Mythical Creatures Guide claim the redcaps mustn’t let the blood dry out since they die if it does. Though where they find a steady supply of victims if they live in ruined castles, I’m not sure.
Henderson claims redcaps appear as old men. With long tangled hair, flaming red eyes, and vicious talons, you’d think most people might avoid him. For those daft enough to venture too close, he throws large stones at them. The unlucky ones he hits end up providing that fresh blood for his cap. They wear iron boots and carry an iron pike, though apparently, you’d be hard pressed to outrun one.
Instead, quoting the Bible at him or holding up a Cross drives him away. He disappears in a flash of flames and leaves a large tooth behind. It all sounds rather spectacular.
Henderson notes the parallel existence of the dunter/powrie in similar Border ruins. They’re harbingers of doom, making noises that act as death omens. According to Henderson, the Picts who built the Border castles used human blood to purify the foundation stones. This grisly act created resident ghosts in the buildings; some wonder if the spirits of these sacrifices take the form of redcaps or dunters.
Other Redcaps in Folklore
Redcaps pop up elsewhere in folklore, as folkloric creatures often do. While the Border redcaps favour blood and destruction, a Perthshire redcap in Grantully Castle showers anyone who sees him with good fortune.
The Dutch redcaps, known as Kabouter, are more like Scottish brownies or Irish leprechauns. William Henderson notes that these redcaps help out around the house, and “on receiving new clothes vanishes never to return” (p. 250). They sound like Rowling’s house elves or the helpful shoemakers of Cologne.
Some refer to the Cornish fairies in Zennor village as redcaps because they wear scarlet caps. They probably hate being confused with violent bloodthirsty goblins.
Vampires.com say redcaps also appear in Ireland, calling them “the vampire’s cousin”. They also say the cap is made from dried human skin.
Lord William de Soulis of Hermitage Castle even had a redcap as a familiar. Named Robin Redcap, he rampaged around William’s lands. Lord Soulis apparently practised the black arts and received advice from his redcap aide. Sir Walter Scott collected a Scottish ballad about the pair. In it, Robin lives in a chest and enchants William so that he may repel metal weapons.
According to Scott, “Redcap is a popular appelation of that class of spirits which haunt old castles. Every ruined tower in the South of Scotland is supposed to have an inhabitant of this species” (Henderson, p. 254).
In the legends, William was wrapped in lead and boiled to death in a cauldron. His pursuers needed to be inventive due to his invincibility to weapons. The legend is more fanciful than the truth; William ended his days in Dumbarton Castle, after confessing his part in a 1320 conspiracy against Robert the Bruce.
You can still visit Hermitage Castle but keep your wits about you. No one wants to provide new dye for a redcap’s hat…
If you find yourself in the presence of a redcap, don’t try to run. Hold up a crucifix if you have one (or make one using two long objects, Peter Cushing-style). Quote scripture, if you know any.
With any luck, he’ll disappear and you can come back here to tell me all about it!
Henderson, William (1879), Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, London: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co, found here.
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