Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Shellycoat

(Shellycoat by Alan Lee, from Faeries)

The Shellycoat is a curious fae creature, rarely spoken of and even more rarely sighted. He has been sighted in two areas of Scotland, the Ettrick area in the Scottish borders, and Leith near Edinburgh. I've yet to hear of sightings elsewhere, but please do let me know if you've heard of any local Shellycoat sightings.

Walter Scott describes the Shellycoat in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Volume 1 (1802) as a spirit who resides in the waters, belonging to the class of bogles, who has given his name to many a rock and stone upon the Scottish coast. He appeared decked with marine productions, in particular shells, whose clattering announced his approach. One of his pranks was 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".

Meanwhile Leith was having its own Shellycoat problem. Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh Vol 3 (1880s) by Grant goes as far as claiming he was "long the bugbear of the urchins of Leith". Campbell's The History of Leith (1827) claims that Shellycoat resorted at a large rock on the site of the present wet docks below the Citadel, and to run around his stone three times repeating a certain rhyme was considered in latter days an act of temerity which none who valued their lives would dare to perform.

Hutchison gives a fuller account in his Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith (1865), describing 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 Shellycoat stripped off his coat and left it on a rock the coat defied mortal strength and no man could remove the coat, but while unclothed Shellycoat was perfectly helpless and harmless. His dwelling is said to be the Shellycoat Stane of North Leith, not far from the citadel. Hutchison again mentions circling the stone three times, but this time gives the all-important rhyme:
"Shelly-coat! Shelly-coat! gang awa' hame,
I cry na' yer mercy, I fear na' yer name."
Unfortunately the rock was apparently blown to pieces on the formation of the docks according to Hutchison, though the Georgian Edinburgh website tells that the rock was moved to the entrance of the local sewage plant and became known as the Penny Bap. However Russell's The Story of Leith (1922) claims the Shellycoat rock, which was destroyed when the docks were built, was bigger than the Penny Bap at Seafield, suggesting this was a different rock. Perhaps a Leith resident can leave a comment on this?


Now for the exciting part! Just this week I came across a story of the Shellycoat I had never read before, found purely by luck whilst researching something completely unrelated. The story comes from the above mentioned Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith (1865) and tells of a terrifying encounter between English Dick, a descendant of Cromwell's troopers, and the Shellycoat. English Dick was drinking in a Leith hostelry when mention was made of the mysterious shelly-coat. Now Dick was not a believer and wagered a gallon of wine that he would, at that very hour, proceed alone to the Shelly-coat Stane and in defiance of its guardian, repeat the famous rhyme. The local folk considered this proposal so reckless that they wanted no part of the mischief which they believed would follow such a mad adventure, but eventually after much taunting and drinking, two or three of them accepted his challenge. They accompanied Dick a portion of the way towards the stane but parted at the north end of the old bridge, refusing to venture any further. Dick shook hands with his friends, full of confidence, and it was arranged that in half an hour, after completing his mission, he would rejoin his friends. The men retraced their steps to the Foul Anchor to pass the time until Dick returned. An hour passed, then another, and midnight arrived without English Dick making his appearance. One man proposed they go and search for him immediately but no one volunteered to go with him, and after much discussion they all agreed to proceed to the rock at dawn, most of the men too terrified to return home alone. At dawn they proceeded to North Leith in search of their missing comrade, and there at the Shelly-coat Stane they found English Dick, lying insensible with two broken legs and his body covered in bruises. He was carefully carried to the Foul Anchor for medical attention, and he eventually recovered but it was a long time before he was ready to speak of that night.

When he eventually agreed to speak he summoned his friends to the Foul Anchor and there told them the tale of his encounter with Shellycoat. He told them how he had begun to have doubts but proceeded to the stane and repeated the rhyme. "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". He saw the outline of a giant figure, towering between him and the sea, and it made one tremendous stride towards him, with an infernal clatter. "In a voice of singular softness, considering the appearance of the spirit, he demanded why I had summoned and defied him?" The Shelly-coat seized him by the shoulders and lifted him above his head, and they traversed the air in the direction of Inchkeith in a clatter of shells. Dick was set down on the highest point of the island and Shelly-coat let out a prolonged laugh as Dick was hurled from his perch by a mass of earth that struck his breast, sending him flying down to the ground. He was lifted back to the spot and driven from it again and again six or seven times. "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". He was also tossed into the sea he believes, as he found he was dripping wet when he regained consciousness. He then found himself being transported back to Leith just as streaks of light were appearing in the east. Shelly-coat dropped him and he struck the rock as he fell, and the fiend gave a ferocious yell before fading away in the same direction he had arrived. Then next event that Dick remembered was waking up in the Foul Anchor with his friends.

An old smuggler gave a different account and instead claimed that Dick had left his friends and joined another public house where he partook of more drink before attempting to climb the Shellycoat stane. He fell off several times before eventually reaching the top and shouted and gesticulated wildly before falling off and breaking both legs. The smuggler said he was running cargo at the time but returned in daylight, only to find Dick had vanished. Who do you believe?

This story also seems to have inspired an Inspector James McLevy mystery titled A Child is Born by David Ashton, published 2008, which can be read here on the Scotsman Website:  In this tale English Dick is found dead by the Shellycoat Stone and the Shellycoat is revealed to be a local man he made a bet with, a smuggler named Prester Nesbit wearing a coat of shells.

I decided to dig a bit deeper and the Dictionary of the Scots Language Website led me to some very early mentions of Shellycoat. A collection of Scots poems on several occasions by Alexander Pennecuik (1769) contains a poem titled The Marriage betwixt Scrape, Monarch of the Maunders, & Blubberlips, Queen of the Gypsies, written about 1720. Here we find the lines "No shellicoat-goblin, or elf on the green, E'er tripp'd more nimbly than the beggars queen".

The Dictionary of the Scots Language also mentions a reference to Shellycoat in Cramond Sess. Rec. MS (1700), "James Walker called him a shellie coat, and he answered him, not to liken him to ane ill spirit." Unfortunately I've yet to find a copy of the manuscript to confirm this.

The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Jan-Jun 1823 contains an article titled Reminiscences of Auld Langsyne No V where the author recollects the stories told by an old widow named Lizzie, who spoke of fairies and imps. "Then came Shelly-coat, a mysterious being. If I recollect rightly, this monster was represented as a human being under a spell, by which he was transformed into a ferocious demon, whose cruelty was insatiable, and his power irresistible".

In Poems by Allan Ramsay (1720) there is a brief mention of Shellycoat: "But yesterday I met her yont a know, She fled as frae a shelly-coated kow." In some areas 'kow' is another word for a goblin or mischievous spirit. In a later edition titled Poems by Allan Ramsay. With new additions and notes (1733) Shelly coat is explained as "one of those frightful spectres the ignorant people are terrified at, and tell us strange Stories of; that they are clothed with a coat of shells, which make a horrid rattling; that they'll be sure to destroy one, if he gets not a running Water between him and it; it dares not meddle with a Woman with child." Strangely, this quote is also given in Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813)  but here he is referred to as 'Spelly coat', though perhaps this is a printing error by Brand or in an earlier edition of Ramsay's poems.

So there we have it, a guide to the Shellycoat. I hope you'll think twice before reciting the Shellycoat rhyme near any large rocks, and if you hear a mysterious clattering of shells following you as you wander along a deserted beach, you'd better start running towards running water, and don't look back!

Sources & Further Information
Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith, Hutchison (1865)
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Volume 1, Walter Scott (1802)
Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh Vol 3, Grant (1880s)
The History of Leith, Campbell (1827)
The Story of Leith, Russell (1922)
Poems, Allan Ramsay (1720)
Observations on Popular Antiquities, Brand (1813)
The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Jan-Jun 1823
A collection of Scots poems on several occasions, Pennecuik (1769)
The Leith Shellycoat, Georgian Edinburgh Website
Dictionary of the Scots Language Website


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