The Highlands have a rich history of fairy tales and folk lore that have intrigued and excited readers for generations with their captivating stories and magical creatures.
None is perhaps more fascinating than the legend of the dragon that is said to have once stalked the Highlands. This fearsome dragon, called the Beast of the Black Firs (or Dhu Guisch in Gaelic) roamed the hills and glens, breathing fire, destroying the woodlands and feasting on the townspeople. It possessed the ability to be indestructible by people who it had laid eyes on, and only a man who saw the dragon before it saw them could kill it.
The Stone of the Beast
The dragon targeted Dornoch during its reign of terror and destruction but Gilbert, a local clergyman, was determined to rid the townspeople of this foe. Gilbert hid in a hole he had dug in the Black Fir Woods, now known as Camore Wood, where the dragon had its lair. As the dragon walked past his hiding place, Gilbert emerged wielding his bow and arrow and killed it with a single shot to the heart.
The dragon was supposedly buried by the townspeople, under the 'Stone of the Beast', near Loch an Treel. The stone still stands in farmland and can be seen from the track when walking between Camore Woods and the A949.
Map illustration from Winston the Bear and the Dragon of the Black Firs, by Jude Holden
Origins of the tale
There are various theories about where the tale of the dragon may have originated. Scandinavian cultural influence has always been strong in the North of Scotland. Scottish dragons are traditionally more associated with water than fire, and the malevolent dragon in this story would be better placed in a Viking saga.
During their occupation of the Highlands between the 8th and 15th centuries, Scandinavian invaders burned vast swathes of forest in the North to control the trade in timber. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to see how the legend of the dragon could have developed during the Viking age.
Historical sources have also suggested the dragon may have been a salamander, a lizard-like amphibian. Interestingly the Loch Ness Monster was referred to as ‘The Salamander’ in scientific documents in the 19th Century. This is a tenuous connection perhaps but the similarities are interesting.
Gilbert de Moravia
Although the story of the dragon is fantastical, the character of Gilbert was in fact a real person. Gilbert de Moravia, a relation to the Earls of Moray, was made Bishop of Caithness in 1222. Traditionally the diocese of Caithness was at Halkirk. Following the brutal murders of the two proceeding bishops Gilbert, perhaps understandably, decided to transfer the seat of the diocese to Dornoch.
There, he undertook the construction of Dornoch Cathedral. Gilbert was famed for performing little miracles and was said to have constructed the Cathedral using enchanted tools. He died in 1245 and was entombed in the building that he constructed.
Later he was recognised as one of the noblest and wisest ecclesiastics in history and was the last Scotsman to be sainted.
Gilbert’s influence can be seen around Dornoch to this day. There is a street in the town named after him and his cathedral still stands, proud and majestic, in the centre of the town and is used as a Parish church.
St. Gilbert Street, Dornoch
Dornoch Cathedral and Historylinks Musuem
The Cathedral has its own interesting history. After completion around 1239, it stood for over 300 years in its original state. In 1570 it was set on fire and Gilberts’ tomb was desecrated during a clan feud between the Murrays of Dornoch and the Mackays of Strathnaver.
Almost destroyed, except for the chancel and transept walls, it underwent several renovations during the 17th and 19th centuries. The most modern additions are the stunning stained glass windows donated in memory of the well-known philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
When visiting Dornoch it’s well worth taking a look at both the Dornoch Cathedral and Historylinks Museum to find out more about the history behind this intriguing story. If you are lucky you may even find a dragon in Historylinks!
Historylinks Museum, Dornoch
Winston the Bear and the Dragon of the Black Firs
The story of Gilbert and the dragon has been retold in the children’s book Winston the Bear and the Dragon of the Black Firs
In Winston’s book, the dragon isn’t killed by Gilbert, instead, he banishes it from the Highlands. On reading the tale Winston wonders if perhaps the legend could be true and if in fact, the dragon could still be hiding in the Highlands unseen.
Does Winston find the dragon? You will have to read his book to find out!
Dragon hunting in the Highlands
Discover how you can go on your own dragon hunt and to download lots of dragon hunting children’s activities, visit Winston the Bear's Dragon Hunting site.
2022 is Scotland’s Themed Year of Stories and this means celebrating all our amazing stories in their different forms and sharing these with visitors and locals alike.