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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Fairy Facts: Redcaps

 For this instalment of fairy facts we're looking at one of the more infamous Otherworldly beings, the Redcap or Red Cap. 

Name: Redcaps or Red Caps

Description: a short, older man with long thin arms ending in eagle-like talons, wearing faded clothes, iron tipped boots, and the requisite red cap. The cap may be the color of dried blood or coated in fresh, dripping blood. 

Found: Redcaps are found in the folklore of the border areas between Scotland and England.

Folklore: The Redcap is a malicious spirit which haunts ruins, particularly of castles. Katherine Briggs and William Henderson both considered them a type of goblin while the poet William Scott Irving depicted a Redcap as a ghost or haunting spirit. In either case the Redcap lurks in ruins and attacks travellers at night by throwing large stones at them with the intent of killing them to gain fresh blood to die its cap with. Sir Walter Scott claimed that across southern Scotland every castle ruin had a Redcap in residence. Henderson suggests that in East Lancashire there may have been folk belief connecting a human witch to Redcaps, evidenced by a public house named 'Mother Redcap'' although this idea is tenuous at best it is not wholly out of line with wider Scottish folklore which overlapped various Otherworldly spirits with human witches. 
  Across the bulk of folklore these beings are seen as vicious and dangerous, immune to the usual fairy-warding methods involving iron but quick to flee when they hear Biblical passages read or see a cross. Upon hearing or seeing such Christian devices the Redcap will either run or vanish in a burst of flame, apparently unable to bear proximity to Christian holy items or words. 
  One especially well-known Redcap was the fairy familiar or familiar spirit of Lord Willliam de Soulis, rumoured to be a sorcerer, Warden of the West Marches an area including Galloway and Dumfries. Folklore claims that de Soulis made a pact with a Redcap for protection against weapons which aided him in his tyrannical rule of the area. History records that de Soulis was eventually arrested for conspiring against Robert the Bruce and died in prison, but wider folk belief has it that he was dragged to the Ninestang Rig in Roxburghshire and boiled to death in oil - a death that neatly got around the promise for protection against weapons that the Redcap had made him. 
  There is one account of a less overtly dangerous Redcap in Perthshire, who would occasionally be spotted in Grantully Castle. It was thought to be lucky to see him. 
   Redcaps are sometimes conflated with other types of castle spirits like Powries and Dunters. 

Where It Gets Muddy: There are many, many types of fairies and Otherworldly beings who wear red caps or hats but aren't the same beings as the malicious Redcap. This can and has caused confusion between the various folk beliefs and possibly contributed to modern fiction and gaming depicting Redcaps as benevolent to any degree. It should be understood that the Redcap is a particular phenomena of the Scottish borders and that beings of a similar name or sartorial proclivity found elsewhere are completely unrelated. 

What They Aren't: friendly, helpful, or on the 'good' end of the spectrum, despite appearing that way in some fiction and having the option to be played that way in role playing games. 
  There's a horror movie 'Unwelcome' that came out in 2023 featuring Redcaps but, while the movie is fun and clever, it largely leaves actual folklore behind in favour of creative fiction. Oddly enough one of the closest things the movie includes to actual Redcap folklore is the idea of the 'Mother Redcap'.

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