Chilling, magical, bloodthirsty and beautiful by turn... it is argued that Scotland's myths and legends still help us make sense of our wild, weird and crazy world. As Halloween draws nearer we bring you the essential guide to a more mystical realm.

Watery monsters and other creatures of the deep

In a contest of the world's best known mythical monsters Nessie would be one colossus of a contender. Loch Ness's celebrity monster was first spotted in the 6th century by Irish monk Saint Columba, on his way to Inverness to visit the King of the Picts. Apparently he found the terrifying creature scaring the locals on the loch shore and, while making the sign of the cross, he successfully commanded it to return to the water.

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Sightings of the creature, supposedly lurking in the shadows of the 754-foot deep body of water, continued through the centuries, as Nessie morphed in the popular imagination from a sea serpent to aquatic dinosaur. In 1933 construction began on the loch side A82, with numerous glimpses reported and a grainy photograph of her head and neck rising above the surface of the water produced by RK Wilson in 1934. Since then many others claim to have captured her image but she's still never been found.

It's said Nessie's origins may lie in the ancient Scottish myth of the Kelpie, the loch-living water horse who tricked unsuspecting victims to mount him, only to find that the melancholy horse dramatically increased size and power,and its mane turn to serpents which wound themselves around their victim. The great beast, so the story goes, would then gallop back into the loch where riders met their watery deaths.

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Beware too of the beautiful Selkies, shape-shifting seals found around Scotland's most northerly isles, who can slip off their soft seal skins to inhabit human form. Powerfully seductive Selkies capture human hearts, it's said, but the call of the sea is always greater than the lure of landlocked love. Tales tell of possessive Selkie lovers who have hidden their shed skins in a vain attempt to prolong their stay but often end up alone and broken hearted regardless.

Scottish tales of Merpeople also come in the form of the Blue Men of the Minch, who swim the stretch of water between the northern Outer Hebrides and mainland Scotland, looking for sailors to drown and stricken boats to sink.

Fairies, sprites and elves

Scottish fairies dance capriciously through many Scottish folk tales. Originally thought to be evil – take care not to fall asleep in a fairy circle, especially after sunset, if you want to live to tell the tale – ancient stories of little people have them stealing away babies and leaving a changeling in its place. Others are properly vicious. Baobhan Sith – or vampire fairies – devoured their male victims and ripped out their hearts. Yet treat the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) well and they would repay acts of kindness with good luck. Skye's Fairy Glen, with its almost supernaturally green, grassy knolls, is said to to be a favoured spot to find them.

Fairies, too, come it different shapes and forms according to legend. The Ghilli Dhu is a male faerie living deep in Scottish forests where distinctive birch trees grows. Living alone he camouflages himself in clothes of leaves and moss and only comes out at night.

This wild little tree sprite is kindness itself to children who find themselves lost in the woods – one story tells of how he found a little lost girl, Jessie Macrae, crying because night had fallen and she had lost her way and he led her to the edge of the wood and her home beside the loch.

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Others tell of his wrath for older trespassers. In some versions the Ghilli Dhu has moved away from the forest and into the parks and gardens where he now performs the role of a Scottish tooth fairy.

The Brownie, meanwhile, is as good natured as other mythical little people are malevolent. The little brown elves, or household goblins, supposedly live in country houses across Scotland and do the household chores while people sleep, disappearing only if they are treated badly.

Vampires, werewolves and devils

Though Eastern Europe is considered the natural stomping ground of vampires Scotland was once a hotspot for gore. Glamis Castle (the childhood home of the late Queen Mother) has its very own blood suckers with one story claiming that within each generation of the family a vampire is born and hidden away in a secret room.

In another tale dating back hundreds of years ago a serving woman was said to have been caught leaning over a body and drinking the victim's blood. In this telling she was also walled-up alive in the castle.

The legends may be rooted in truth. Somewhere in the 16-foot-thick (4.9m) walls is the famous room of skulls, where the Ogilvie family, who in 1486 sought protection from their enemies the Lindsays, were walled up and died of starvation.

Not all Scottish vampire stories are ancient or concern the rural chattering classes. In 1954 a strange rumour did the rounds in the school playgrounds of the Gorbals in Glasgow about a man with iron teeth who had abducted and eaten two local young boys. One night in late September hundreds of children gathered at the Southern Necropolis, armed with whatever they could find and determined to track down and kill the Gorbals' Vampire.

Scottish werewolves were arguably less fierce, at least according to the tales of the Shetland Wulver, who took the form of man with a wolf's head and left fish on the windowsills of poor and hungry families. Covered in a layer of thick brown hair, unlike the werewolf, the Wulver was never human but, claimed the ancient Celts, a creature half way between man and wolf.

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While there are plenty of tales of goddesses, often associated with nature, the devil also stalks our mythical landscape. In some stories he takes the form of Black Donald, a shape-shifting, terrifying beast.

Master of disguise he may be but there's truth in the myth that you can tell a lot about a man by what he wears on his feet. The devil's cloven feet cannot be shod. Steer clear.

Meet the Nessie Hunters

Adrian Shine saw his first monster when he was eight years old looking out to sea as he stood on a Norfolk beach with his family, who were holidaying there.

"We saw this fast moving line of dark humps," he said. "It was the first time I'd ever heard of a sea serpent. Only a day later we spoke to a local who told us it was just an illusion caused by birds flying in line, the common scooter to be precise."

It was then, he claims, that he first became aware of the controversy caused when scientists deny the existence of something that eye witnesses claim to have seen.

He became fascinated by the work of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, which used RAF-surplus searchlights, massive telephoto lenses, a bright yellow mini-submarine, underwater sonar sweeps and gelignite charges in its search for the monster during the Sixties and early Seventies.

When he heard intriguing rumours of a small boat that had been attacked by a monster in Loch Morar he decided to check them out for himself and arrived in 1973, aged 24, and ready for adventure. Finding clear waters quite unlike the dark and peaty ones of Loch Ness he built a mini-sub the next year and dived under the depths to find hidden worlds full of plankton and fish.

He was hooked, moving to the shores of Loch Lomond in 1988 where he has made it his life's work, not to find a monster, but to make the loch's hidden world better understood. He describes himself not as a cynic but a "sympathetic sceptic". He puts down sightings to real-life phenomenon like boat wakes and birds but "I believe we do actually see something that conforms to our expectation, " he says. "It's not pure imagination."

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Steve Feltham, meanwhile, sold his Dorset home in 1991 to fulfill his own Nessie-hunting boyhood dream– inspired by a family holiday to Loch Ness in the early Seventies – and has lived ever since in a ex-mobile library (which has neither running water or electricity) on Dores beach. Within the first year he had a possible sighting, lasting about 10 seconds, "of water splashing off the back of something", that he says defies explanation. He is still waiting for his second sighting.

Now he spends his days with his binoculars and camera to the ready, talking to tourists on the beach about their possible sightings and selling Nessie models he makes to fund his hunt. As the years roll on has become increasingly convinced that the monster sightings are actually glimpses of a small population of Wels catfish, introduced to the UK about 130 years ago, which can grow to five metres long.

"That would explain the peak in sightings," he says. "But it doesn't mean there couldn't be an alien or a dinosaur in that loch. There are still lots of possibilities."

He admits he's unlikely to give up the hunt. "I always wanted to try to solve one of the world's most enduring mysteries," he says. "And there is such joy in living the life that I always wanted to live."

Why we still love folk tales

Mythical stories in Scotland are like catechisms. Robert the Bruce? The spider taught him to try, try and try again. Sawney Bean? Lived in an Ayrshire cave (sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries according to which version you believe) with his incestuous cannibal clan and ate some 1000 local humans for tea. St Mungo? The patron saint of Glasgow managed to arrange the capture of the salmon that swallowed the ring of the 6th century Queen of Strathclyde Languoreth – thrown into the river by her young lover and returned to her before it could be missed by the king.

These folk tales run in our blood according to Donald Smith, director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. "People have been continuously passing on stories here for about five thousand years, and each new culture adds its ingredients to a fantastically rich brew," he says.

"Understanding our environment and experiences has always been the key. For example, stories of the Selkies or seal people brought comfort to those who lost loved ones at sea. Giant and dragon tales are often about the way the landscape is formed – by dramatic elemental forces. The ‘wee folk’ may reflect ancestors and perhaps gods and goddesses.

"We may interpret the world differently in modern times, but we still connect in the language of story."

Another storyteller, David Campbell, believes tales which survived in Scotland with the help of the travelling tradition of oral storytelling, hold an essence of ancient wisdom. Amongst his favourites are Ossian's tales of the warrier Fionn mac Cumhaill [or McCool] who has had some of our most famous geographical features attributed to him. Legend has it he built the Giant's Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet. Fingal's Cave is also named after him.

"The stories of Finn McCool can be traced back to the 8th century," says Campbell. "They carried a worth, sifted by time, that literary stories didn't have."

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Fellow storyteller Daniel Allison explains it this way. "The landscape our stories portray isn't the one we see – it's the landscape of our psyches and dreams. These stories speak a deeper truth."