Local Folklore

Wanlockhead - Tales, Myths or Facts?

The Cannibal Sheep of Wanlockhead 

In the 19th Century, a small dam on Stake Moss, known as the Mossy Burn Dam, was used to supply the Village with its water.

One summer, villagers were worried about the quality of the water because of the unusual taste, colour and smell.

A decision to drain the Dam was agreed upon to try and find the cause.

Nobody was prepared for what they would find at the bottom of the Dam.

The floor, littered with bones, mostly from lambs and sheep, shocked the villagers, although animals had been disappearing.

As the last of the water drained, the villagers got a big surprise to find a huge, ugly-looking sheep-like creature that was still alive, had gills on both sides of its neck and had evolved to underwater living.

Nobody had heard of or seen anything like it, and it was cautiously captured and tied up. It was agreed, by the majority, to send the creature to the University of Edinburgh to find out if they could help and identify the animal.

The journey by horse and cart to Edinburgh took several days, and sadly the strange beast died on the long journey.

When the scientists received the strange-looking beast, filled with curiosity, they had it dissected, studied and then stored away in a preservative.

The results and what became of it have not been recorded, and although enquiries have been made, nobody has been able to find the preserved remains.

Somewhere in the deep and dark recesses of the University is what remains of that extraordinary beast.

Jack (Skinny) Hall

Jack Hall, known as 'Skinny' to his friends, came to Wanlockhead to work in the mines in the late 1700s. Jack worked in many of the area's mines and was ultimately employed in the Meadowfoot Smelter for five years.

One day in a freak accident, a brick fell from one of the buildings hitting him on the head, which, sadly, was fatal and killed him.

Jack was buried with his favourite work boots and cap.

A year later, on the anniversary of his death, workers turning up for their shift at the Smelter noticed a pair of boots and a cap sitting at the entrance door. All the workers agreed and acknowledged that they were Jack's boots and cap.

All of them knew that Jack was buried with these, his favourite boots and cap, it was impossible they could appear at the work site, but they did.

For the following five years, on the anniversary of his death, his boots and cap appeared at the same place at the Smelter.

To this day, nobody knows how Jack's work boots and cap appeared at his last workplace.


There are many stories of giants roaming the country, some seeming gentle and some not, all given their different names. Lowther Hills was no exception, and it was said that Lother the Giant helped the Picts and their way of life and customs.


The Picts were a group of people who lived during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Scotland was divided into a series of kingdoms in the early Middle Ages. Of these, the four most important to emerge were the Picts, the Gaels of Dál Riata, the Britons of Alt Clut, and the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia. After the arrival of the Vikings in the late 8th century, Scandinavian rulers and colonies were established on the islands and along parts of the coasts. In the 9th century, the House of Alpin combined the lands of the Scots and Picts to form a single kingdom which constituted the basis of the Kingdom of Scotland.

Lother roamed these hills and left some indentations found at locations showing maybe his giant footprints, also areas where he sat and rested, or indeed, is it just nature that has formed these anomalies on the hills?

Stoats Graveyard

There is a tale that down the Mennock Pass when Stoats died or were killed, other Stoats would carry the dead bodies on their backs to a location near the burn (stream). 

After many years, many skeletons were found, thus apparently proving that this was indeed a unique graveyard formed by Stoats. Though the behaviour to form this site was never understood as Stoats are not known to be social animals.

One possible theory, but only a theory, is that the main prey of Stoats and Weasels are rabbits and small birds, therefore, the bones may have been the remains of their meals.

The Witches Ball

In the past, many stories have been told of witches visiting the village, to the extent that the residents grew fearful of what these witches could do. 

So to protect them many bought glass balls to hang in their window.

The reason for this was if a witch looked into the house window they would see their true reflection from the glass ball and think there was a witch living there. 

The hope was they move to another home and leave the resident in that house alone.  

The Hanging Tree

 A few miles from Wanlockhead was a large tree, this tree was known as the hanging tree. 

When criminal acts occurred in the village, a short hearing was convened, usually organised by respected people in the village. 

All were almost certain to be found guilty and marched to the hanging tree where a swift execution took place.

This way of justice was seen to be the best way of looking after the local community. 

It has been told that the main stump of this tree still exists today.

The Pheasant Tree

A resident in Wanlockhead decided to cut a tree within his property in the shape of a pheasant. 

It became an attraction to all in the village and all who visited. 

Postcards were issued of this unusual tree. 

But after his death, the tree was never shaped like a pheasant again and now looks like any other tree as you pass it.

The Story of Jenny Miller

 A young girl called Jennie Miller, born at Leadhills in 1858 set out to walk over the hills from Kirkhope farm, where she worked, to her sister's wedding in Wanlockhead.

She had changed into her Sunday best dress and carried a wicker basket, in it was a teapot, a present for her sister.

As she crossed the hills, she was caught in a blizzard but Jenny bravely battled through the fierce wind and snow.

Unfortunately, the atrocious weather limited her vision and Jenny fell into the mine workings. Her body was not found for several days.

The locals were saddened by her tragic death and built a stone cairn near where she died in this tragic accident. On one of the pieces of stone someone carved. 

"In memoriam, Jenny Miller 1877".

 She can still be seen with her wicker basket in the hills above Wanlockhead when it's misty.

The 'Horse's Head' Gold Nugget

The names of the participants are fictitious and only for the benefit of the narrative.

This story is well known in the village by folk who follow the gold and go gold panning.

Many years ago, a local man (Whom we'll call Robert) had heard a rumour about a large gold nugget located in the village's lower part and made countless attempts to find it.

One day Robert's hard work paid dividends when he found a large gold nugget, which was reported to be the size of a horse's head.

As it was so large and heavy, he couldn't bring it to the side of the road, where it could be transported easier to a safe location.

So that night, Robert visited a friend, Tony, and told him what he had found but never mentioned the location of the nugget.

It was agreed that if Tony helped him the next day, he would benefit from a substantial reward.

The next day Tony waited at the agreed time for Robert, but he never appeared. After a while, he became concerned and set out to locate Robert. 

On approaching Robert's home, he was informed that Robert had sadly passed away during the night.

Tony returned home shocked and saddened by Robert's passing but also with the knowledge that the 'horse's head' nugget was still out there, in an unknown location and worth a fortune which he could've shared.

Is the 'horse's head' still out there? ........ Ready to be found again.

'Evil Deviants'

Murderers and even those that committed Suicide were deemed as 'Evil Deviants' in the local communities in the past.

Any of the Deviant's remaining family Members were almost certainly excluded from Village life and forced to leave the community.

Because of the severity of the action to commit murder or take your own life, Deviants were not to be buried in the graveyard. They were taken to the top of a hill and placed in a shallow grave, face down.

They were buried face down in the belief that if the 'Evil Spirit' that had possessed them returned to their bodies, it would dig down to try to escape the grave.

There is a hill locally where you can still see many small graves like mounds. 

Could these possibly be the "Deviant's graves"?

The Local Blacksmith

In the 18th century, the blacksmith (known as the Smithy) was one of the most important people in a village.

He was the local 'engineer' and had sufficient intellect and business sense to hold a church or legal appointment.

His skill as a metal craftsman enabled him to make functional as well as decorative items, tools, horseshoes, and wrought iron work, as well as mend metal fixtures and implements.

The horse was the mode of transport of the time, not only for farm work but also for personal and business travel so keeping horses mobile was necessary for the local economy.

Robert Burns (Poet) was travelling on his horse, Pegasus, and on a frosty afternoon in the winter of 1788 - 89, while collecting taxes in his day job as a Customs Excise Officer, he called at the Blacksmiths in Wanlockhead.

Unfortunately, the Smithy was too busy to apply Caulkins (Metal projections forged or welded onto a horseshoe to prevent slipping on ice) to improve the grip on the slippery road to his horse's shoes.

Undeterred, Burns and a local acquaintance, Thomas Sloan, went to Ramage's Inn, the local hostelry for a bite to eat and a drink. 

While at the inn Burns composed a sonnet and addressed it to John Taylor, a man of considerable standing in the community.

Pegasus at Wanlockhead

With Pegasus upon a day,

Apollo, weary flying,

Through frosty hills, the journey lay,

On foot, the way was plying.

Poor slipshod giddy Pegasus

Was but a sorry walker;

To Vulcan then Apollo goes,

To get a frosty caulker.

Obliging Vulcan fell to wark,

Threw by his coat and bonnet,

And did Sol's business in a crack,

Sol paid him with a sonnet.

Ye Vulcan's sons of Wanlockhead,

Pity my sad disaster;

My Pegasus is poorly shod,

I'll pay you like my master.

Burns uses the references to Apollo, (the Greek god of poetry) and Sol, (the Roman Sun god) as himself. He uses Vulcan, (the Roman god of metal working) whose symbols were the anvil, tongs and hammer, as the Smithy.

The sonnet reflects the poet's quick wit and education and is a practical, problem-solving poem.

Mr Taylor spoke to the Smithy and persuaded him to help Mr Burns with his problem and subsequently, Pegasus's shoes were frosted.

Old Mary's Ghost

Mary lived all her life at Lower Straitsteps Cottage, where she was born.

She never lived anywhere else, and nobody knew her exact age, although some said she was over 100.

She was always seen outside her door or in the garden opposite her house, never anywhere else.

Many locals knew Mary in that she would help them in many ways, one always having some herbs to help illnesses.

Then one day, Mary just vanished, and nobody knew if she had died or left the village.

To date, nobody knows the true story of what happened to Old Mary.

Many people since her unexplained disappearance have said that they have seen an apparition, believed to be Old Mary, walking up the road near where she lived.

People walking their dogs in the area of Straitsteps Cottage say that their dog barks when passing when there is nobody visibly to be seen.

Walking passed the ruins of the old Straitsteps Cottage just passed the Beam Engine, 

you'll almost certainly feel an eerie chill.


Coffin or Corpse Roads

As the name implies, these trails were for the deceased to be transported over the hills for burial at the graveyard. Journeys along the coffin roads were often lengthy and difficult, with six or eight men carrying the coffin on either their shoulders or long poles. They would stop at frequent points along the route for a rest and to be relieved by another bearer party.

Wanlockhead was in the Parish of Presbytery of Penpont, the dead had to be taken 8 miles across the hills for burial at St. Bride's Kirkyard, Sanquhar.

The slow progress on foot from Wanlockhead to the place of burial involved a large group of coffin bearers and mourners walking over the wild and bleak hills. A feature found on most of the coffin roads were the cairns built along the way, marking where the bearer parties stopped to rest. In most cases, the cairns provided a platform on which the coffin rested, and stones were added to them by friends and relatives of the deceased, giving rise to the saying,

'Peace to thy soul, and a stone to thy Cairn'

It was a belief that if the coffin touched the ground the spirit of the deceased would return to haunt the living.

Coffins were carried with the corpse's feet facing away from home to avoid the possibility of the spirit returning to haunt it. The winding route taken by some coffin roads was to thwart the spirits which were known to like to travel in straight lines. They also often crossed running water, something that spirits were thought unable to do.

There was one route over the Black Hill for the residents who died in the Village of Wanlockhead and another coffin road to take the deceased residents of Meadowfoot to the bottom of the Village.

The Meadowfoot coffin road is now part of the Southern Upland Way.

When Sanquhar authorities agreed to lend a Mort Cloth to Wanlockhead through the church, the residents were permitted to have a Cemetery, the Meadowfoot Graveyard was established in 1751.

Subsequent to a refusal by the Sanquhar authorities to lend a Mort Cloth to Wanlockhead, as had been the custom, an appeal in 1858 was made successively to Presbytery & General Assembly which ruled that Wanlockhead be given a church and therefore a Mort Cloth in its own right.

The Curfew Bell

The Curfew Bell with the associated 'Curfew Law' is recorded as having been started in Medieval Times by Alfred the Great.

The Curfew Law that was imposed upon the population was a compulsory duty they had to do or be punished like a criminal.

The Curfew Bell was rung in the evening, usually around eight o'clock, as the signal for everyone to cover or deaden their fires, but not necessarily to put them out completely before retiring to bed.

The usual procedure was, at the sound of the Curfew Bell the burning logs were removed from the centre

of the hearth and the hot ashes swept to the back and sides. The cold ashes were then raked back over

the fire to cover it. The ashes would then keep smouldering giving warmth, the fire could quickly be

reignited the next morning by merely adding logs back on it and allowing air to vent through the ashes. A benefit of covering up the fire in the evening helped prevent any destruction caused by unattended fires,

a major concern since most structures were made of wood and burned easily.

Essentially, the 'Curfew Bell' acted as an early method 

of fire prevention.

The Medieval Curfew Law was predominately targeted against the conquered Anglo-Saxons to prevent rebellious meetings, associations and conspiracies around live fires after the Curfew Bell. The strict practice of this Medieval tradition was pretty much observed during the reign of William I and William II of England. The law was eventually repealed by Henry I of England in 1103. A century later in England, the Curfew Bell was associated more with a time of night rather than an enforced Curfew Law. The time of the Curfew Bell changed after the Middle Ages to nine in the evening and sometimes even ten.

The Wanlockhead Curfew Bell

Formerly located in the centre of the Village adjacent to the now demolished Fraser Memorial Building. 

The Village Community Garden now occupies this site.

The bell was an integral part of the Village and Mining Industry. It was rung for the Miner's shift changes and to summon the children to school. It also warned of accidents in the mines or when people were lost on the hills.

The custom of ringing the 'Curfew Bell' continued in many towns and cities, especially in the North of England, well into the 19th century, although by then it had ceased to have any legal status.