Variations: The Beast, Dhu Guisch (“Of the Black Firs”)
Tradition holds that the dense, impenetrable forests of Scotland once covered most of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides, but fell to the Norsemen. The Scandinavians burned down the forests to dominate the trade in timber, and to prevent potential ambushes from forested areas.
In Sutherland the destruction of the forests is attributed to a dragon, the Beast of the Charred Forests. This terrifying, powerful monster was born from a fire that burned for seven years and lived in fire. It once stalked over northern Scotland, breathing fire and incinerating trees. There was no escaping its wrath, and people would abandon their villages to the dragon whenever they heard it was near. Only a man who saw it before it saw him could slay it.
But the Beast itself met its match in Saint Gilbert. When it came upon St. Gilbert’s Church in Dornoch, it roared “Pity on you, Dornoch!” Saint Gilbert, who had previously dug a hole and hid in it to see the dragon before it appeared, emerged from his church armed with a bow and arrows, and repeated the Beast’s boastful statement to its face. “Pity on you, Dornoch!” The beast prepared to breathe fire on Dornoch, but the Saint’s first arrow pierced and killed it immediately. It was buried on the moor between Dornoch and Skibo, and a stone – the Beast’s Stone – was placed over it.
The presence of charred pine stumps in the peat moss of Ross, Sutherland, and the Reay is evidence of the Beast’s ravages.
Dempster, M. (1888) The Folk-lore of Sutherlandshire. Folk-Lore Journal v. VI p. 3, pp. 149-189.
MacGregor, A. A. (1937) The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands. The Moray Press, Edinburgh.