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 they do appear in northern European folklore, they’re most common in Border folklore.
In many ways, it’s hardly surprising. The Border region is a particularly blood-soaked part of the British Isles.
According to Sir Walter 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” (quoted in Henderson 1879 : 254).
Since they’re so dangerous, 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 (1879: 253). They favour the castles that saw violent or tyrannical events—which in many ways should be most of them. 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 even describes them: “He is depicted as a short thickset old man, with long prominent teeth, skinny fingers armed with talons like eagles, large eyes of a fiery-red colour, grisly hair streaming down his shoulders, iron boots, a pikestaff in his left hand, and a red cap on his head” (1879: 253).
He would throw stones at anyone who tried to shelter in one of his castles, and where possible he killed them. He dipped his cap in their blood to keep the blood fresh. Despite their iron boots, 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.
Henderson notes the parallel existence of the dunter or powrie in similar Border ruins. These noisy sprites make sounds like beating flax. Apparently, if the sound goes on longer than usual, or is louder, it predicts a death (1879: 255). According to Henderson, the Picts who built the Border castles used human blood to purify the foundation stones (1879: 256). 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 (Briggs 1976: 339).
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.
The Dutch redcaps, known as Kaboutermannekin, are completely different from their Scottish namesakes. The Dutch redcaps wear “red from head to foot” and carry out tasks around the house. One of these sounds remarkably helpful in that they light invisible fires during the night that still warm the house (Henderson 1879: 255). William Henderson notes that these redcaps help out around the house, and “on receiving new clothes vanishes never to return” (1879: 250). This brings them closer to traditional brownie lore than the bloodthirsty Border variety.
Henderson actually relates a tale from Kempnerland in which a miller tried to get his former redcap back. Having given him clothes as a reward, he missed his servant. He knew that the Kaboutermannekin crossed a particular bridge every evening, so he lay in wait. A procession of them passed over the bridge, with his former sprite bringing up the rear. He still proudly wore his new clothes. The miller pounced, trying to grab the redcap. A voice, sounding remarkably like his wife, cried for help from the river, so the miller turned away. The Kaboutermannekin all vanished (1879: 250). It’s a far cry indeed from the Scottish Redcap.
One lengthy legend concerns Hermitage Castle, near Newcastleton, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Built by Nicholas de Soulis in around 1240, by 1320 it had passed to his descendant, William de Soulis. In the legends, Lord Soulis was no ordinary landowner. Apparently, he practised the black arts and was a keen sorcerer.
J. Levden describes him following “local tradition” as “uniting every quality which could render strength formidable, and cruelty detestable” (1846: 163). Don’t hold back there!
As part of his sorcery, he conjured a redcap as a familiar. Some tales name him Robin Redcap, but William Henderson refers to him as Redcap Sly. Either way, Redcap Sly rampaged around William’s lands. Sir Walter Scott collected a Scottish ballad about the pair. In it, Robin lives in a chest and enchants William.
The redcap noted that he’d have a charmed life, and he’d be impervious to lances, arrows, swords and knives. Only three ropes made of sifted sand wrapped around his body would be his downfall (Henderson 1879: 254).
In the legends, Lord Soulis does indeed meet his end in a most grisly fashion. Redcap Sly is unable to save him since his captors don’t use metal weapons, and Lord Soulis was boiled to death in a cauldron at Ninestane Rig, a nearby megalithic circle.
Levden also claims that Robert Bruce condemned him to death by saying “Boil him if you please, but let me hear no more of him” following repeated complaints (1846: 163). According to this version of the legend, Bruce dispatched riders to prevent the execution from taking place after realising his words had been taken seriously. They were too late.
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 Bruce. He forfeited the castle as a result. Still, it’s interesting that Levden’s version of the tale focuses on the sorcery, and makes no mention of Redcap Sly.
You can still visit Hermitage Castle. Historic Environment Scotland cares for it, and it’s open between 1 April and 30 September. It’s also believed to be haunted by Mary, Queen of Scots.
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!
Briggs, Katharine (1976), A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, London: Penguin Books.
Henderson, William (1879), Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, London: W. Satchell, Peyton and Co.
Levden, J. (1846), ‘The Cout of Keelder’, in M. A. Richardson (ed), The Borderer’s table book; or, Gatherings of the local history and romance of the English and Scottish Border, Volume II, London: Henry G. Bohn, pp. 162-171.
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