Tim’s Tales: The Shellycoat Stane
OFTEN when we go food shopping in our home town of Prestonpans, we park in the bays next to the shore so we can first go for a walk along the beach with our dog Ceilidh.
I never tire of the view across the sea here: to the west there is the distinctive shape of Arthur’s Seat framing the horizon, the pinnacled rooftops of Edinburgh nestled underneath, and of course the ever-changing weather, which paints a different canvas every day, with often spectacular sunsets.
To the north you can usually see Fife.
I say usually because sometimes it vanishes in a veil of mist or cloud.
On such days, the island of Inchkeith draws your attention, it becomes a distinctive, dark silhouette, painted on a grey or white background.
I know Inchkeith is considered part of Fife because of its closer proximity to that ancient kingdom, but we can claim a connection too, for it can be seen from many parts of East Lothian.
And on days when Fife has vanished behind cloud, the island seems to become bigger and move closer to our shore.
It’s an illusion caused by the weather, but my son has noticed this and given Inchkeith the title “mystery island”.
Recently, while we daundered on the beach looking out to sea, he asked me for a story about the island.
I wondered what tale to tell. It has an interesting history defending the Firth of Forth, but that wouldn’t interest him so much.
He loves monster tales and scary stuff, and was hoping for a story befitting the title “mystery island”. I decided to tell him the legend of the Shellycoat of Leith.
Who, or what, was the Shellycoat? It was a grotesque goblin-like creature with ugly fearsome features and, as its name suggests, a coat of shells.
It lived by water, usually the sea, but also by a river or loch, and had a reputation for cruel tricks and deviousness.
The story of the Shellycoat of Leith is told in more than one old book, one being Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith, written in 1865 by William Hutchison.
It recounts the tradition that the Shellycoat lived in a large boulder in Leith, originally known as the Shellycoat’s Stane, which lay by the Citadel, close to the shore.
Unlike other creatures of Scottish folklore, such as the Kelpie, the Shellycoat wasn’t normally a killer or eater of human flesh, but it did take evil pleasure in scaring people. It would stay hidden in the darkness or mist and make an eerie rattling sound with its coat.
Then it would call for help as if someone was in mortal danger.
Its victims would search fruitlessly for the source of the distressing calls, then suddenly there’d be a hideous laughter, revealing it was all a hoax.
So the Shellycoat was more of an anti-social bully and a nuisance, but as the tale of the Shellycoat of Leith shows, it could have a much darker side to its character.
It was said it did kill a man once, by deliberately exhausting him in a game of football! It sounds almost amusing, but it wasn’t.
It showed that the creature was dangerous and to be avoided. But this danger acted as a challenge for local children, who would dare each other to run round the Shellycoat’s Stane, chanting:
“Shelly-coat! Shelly-coat! gang awa’ hame,
“I cry na’ yer mercy, I fear na’ yer name.”
But once you did this, it was vital to run as fast as you could, lest the creature is roused and catches you!
So where does Inchkeith island come into all this?
Well, it all began with a gathering of acquaintances in a pub called the Foul Anchor on Leith’s Shore.
One of them was a man called Dick. He was said to have been proudly descended from a Cromwellian soldier.
One of the drinkers mentioned the story of the Shellycoat and Dick loudly proclaimed he didn’t believe in such nonsense and waged a gallon of wine that he could go to the Shellycoat’s Stane, recite the rhyme and not run away without any consequence.
The wager was accepted and so the drunken party of men left the pub with Dick and staggered across the old bridge.
But none of his companions went further with him; perhaps they believed it was too dangerous to annoy the Shellycoat, perhaps the cosy warmth of the pub was missed too much.
So they bade him good luck and returned to the Foul Anchor.
Dick called out to them to get the wine ready for he was sure he’d win his wager and soon return to drink his winnings.
They waited for him all evening but he did not return.
It was only the following morning, as sobriety awakened their concern, that some of them ventured out to look for him. They found Dick lying by the legendary stone, terribly injured.
They carried him back to the pub, of course, to tend to his wounds.
He was at first very reluctant to say what had happened and it was only much later, after he had recovered, that he was persuaded to tell the story of that night.
And so it was announced the tale would be told in the Foul Anchor. As can be imagined, news of Dick’s mysterious injuries had spread in the community, so a small crowd of locals, as well as his companions, assembled to hear the story.
There was an atmosphere of intrigued anticipation. Once adequately provided with drink, Dick began to tell the hushed audience what had happened that fateful night.
He explained that he had recited the rhyme as dared by the Shellycoat Stane and he did not run away as was the custom.
At first he believed he’d won the bet because nothing happened, but as he made to leave, a frightening rattling noise struck terror into him and drained the strength from his legs.
The horrible creature appeared, dressed in its shell-laden coat, annoyed at being disturbed.
With great strength, it lifted Dick up above its head and carried him, with great leaps, across the sea to Inchkeith.
The creature howled with spine-chilling laughter as it dropped him onto the island.
For the rest of the night, it lifted and dropped him from the island’s highest point, playing with him like a cat might do with a mouse.
It was only when a peek of light in the east signalled the arrival of dawn that this torture ended and Dick was once again lifted and carried over the sea, this time back to the stone.
The creature dropped him at quite a height onto it, causing him his final injuries. There he lay, terribly injured and unconscious, until found in the morning.
That was his story and everyone, except an old man with a cynical look on his face, said they believed him, for they had grown up in the area and knew the legend of the Shellycoat.
The cynic, who didn’t believe Dick’s tale, was a smuggler from Cockenzie.
He had been about his illegal business that night and had seen Dick leave his companions and what had really happened afterwards.
But the old smuggler was cautious in telling his version of that night, for obvious reasons! And, besides, Dick had the better story!
Is the Shellycoat Stane still there? If not, where does the Shellycoat reside now? In these questions lie another story!