Folklore Friday - The Shellycoat

Folklore Friday - The Shellycoat
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A curious creature, the Shellycoat is rarely spoken of and is even more rarely spotted. Known sightings in two areas of Scotland suggest his usual dwelling preferences are in Ettrick (in the Scottish borders) and Leith (in Edinburgh). There are yet to be sightings in any other areas, however it is quite possible that the Shellycoat may move around.

Walter Scott described the Shellycoat as a spirit who resides in the waters. Belonging to a class of Bogles, he has given his name to many rocks and stones across the Scottish coast. In appearance he is decked with marine accessories, such as shells, which cause him to clatter as he walks. This choice of attire is the reason for his name - Shell Coat.

He has been known to play many a prank, one of which is as follows:

"Two men, in a very dark night, approaching the banks of the Ettrick, heard a doleful voice from its waves repeatedly exclaim - "Lost! Lost!"- They followed the sound, which seemed to be the voice of a drowning person, and, to their infinite astonishment, they found that it ascended the river. Still they continued, during a long and tempestuous night, to follow the cry of the malicious sprite; and arriving, before morning's dawn, at the very source of the river, the voice was now heard descending the opposite side of the mountain in which they arise. The fatigued and deluded travellers now relinquished the pursuit; and had no sooner done so, than they heard shellycoat applauding, in loud bursts of laughter, his successful roguery. This spirit was supposed particularly to haunt the old house of Gorrinberry, situated on the river Hermitage in Liddesdale".

With Leith having their own Shellycoat problem, in 1827 the Shellycoat was known to reside on a large rock on the site of the present docks below the Citadel. If you dared you could run around his rock three times, repeating a certain rhyme. None who valued their life dared to attempt this for fear of death.

"Shelly-coat! Shelly-coat! gang awa' hame,
I cry na' yer mercy, I fear na' yer name."

In Hutchison's Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith (1865), he describes the Shellycoat as "a sort of monster fiend, gigantic but undefinable, who possessed powers almost infinite, who never undertook anything, no matter how great, which he failed to accomplish; his swiftness was that of a spirit, and he delighted in deeds of blood and devastation. He was clothed in a coat covered with shells, the rattling of which was so unnatural and unexpected, that it appalled the hearts of all who heard it, and his usual haunts were near rivers or lakes, and by the sea-shore."

When the Shellycoat took off his coat, he could leave it on a rock and the coat would defy mortal strength. No man could remove it. While unclothed, however, the Shellycoat was completely helpless. When the rock was blown up when they began building the Leith Docks, it was moved to the entrance of the local sewage plant, becoming known as Penny Bap.

Legend has it that Dick, a descendant of Cromwell's troopers, had a terrifying encounter with the Shellycoat. Drinking in a Leith hostelry, Dick was not a believer of the Shellycoat. When the Shellycoat walked into the establishment, Dick wagered a gallon of wine that he would go to the shellycoat's rock, every hour on the hour, and repeat the famous rhyme. Considering the proposal reckless, the locals made sure they had nothing to do with Dick's plan. They believed that a mad adventure would follow and wanted to be no part of it. After much encouragement and alcohol, a couple of the locals accepted the challenge, alongside Dick.

Accompanying Dick a portion of the way towards the stone, they parted at the north end of the old bridge and refused to venture any further. Shaking hands with his friends, Dick arranged to join them in half an hour, after he had completed his mission.

Retracing their steps to the Foul Anchor to pass the time, they waited for his return. An hour passed, then another, and before they knew it midnight had arrived. Without Dick making an appearance, one man suggested they go and search for him, however no one volunteered to accompany him. After much debate, they all agreed that they would go to the Shelly-stane at dawn.

Proceeding to North Leith, the group of men found Dick lying on the Shelly-stane. He had two broken legs and was covered in bruises. Terrified, they carried him to the Foul Anchor for medical attention and he eventually recovered. It was a long time, however, before he was ready to speak about what happened that night. Eventually agreeing to speak, he summoned his friends to the Foul Anchor and told them of his encounter.

"For an instant I thought I had triumphed - not a sound, save the rippling of the tide, disturbed the perfect stillness of the night. Suddenly, and without any premonition, I was startled by a most appalling noise which seemed to approach from the direction of Newhaven. It cannot easily be described, but it seemed as if all the shells in the universe had been collected together, and then carried up into the air by a fierce tempest, and dashed against each other with uncontrollable fury".

Dick continued that he had seen the outline of a giant figure, towering between him and the sea, and it made a tremendous stride towards him, making a terrifying clatter as it moved.

"In a voice of singular softness, considering the appearance of the spirit, he demanded why I had summoned and defied him?"

The Shelly-coat had then seized Dick by the shoulders, lifting him above his head and fighting in the air as they made their way towards Inchkeith, as the sound of clattering shells rang throughout the night air. Setting Dick down on the highest part of the island, the Shellycoat let out a prolonged laugh, hurling Dick from his perch. Lifted from his spot and driven down more than six times, he said,

"I was utterly unable to offer the slightest resistance. Human nature could not bear up against this, and the demonic laugh of the exulting fiend rang on my ears as I lapsed into insensibility".

Dick also believed he was tossed into the sea, as he was dripping wet when he regained conciousness. Finding himself then transported back to Leith, streaks of light were appearing in the east and the sun began to rise. Dropping him at the Shelly-Stane, back in Leith, Dick struck a rock as he fell. Giving a ferocious yell, the Shellycoat faded away in the same direction from which he had arrived. The next thing Dick remembered was waking up at the Foul Anchor with his friends.