Redcaps

Redcap describes a type of goblin from Northumbrian and Scottish Borders folklore. While many related creatures such as boggarts and kobolds have a reputation as malicious tricksters and troublemakers, at least in some stories, redcaps are considered far more malevolent.

Bloodthirsty and violent, redcaps take their name from their practice of soaking their cloth caps in the blood of their victims. As with many creatures of English folklore, names for the beings most frequently known as redcaps vary from place to place; dunter is sometimes used in Northumbria, where as they are sometimes called powrie on the Scottish side of the border. 

The areas of Scotland, Cumbria and Northumbria (now known as Northumberland) close to the border between Scotland and England are littered with ruined and abandoned castles, testament to over 1,000 years of unrest between the two nations. In particular, many fortifications were constructed to protect both Scots and English from border reivers, bandits and mercenaries that would roam the region, raiding settlements and farmsteads.

A 19th century print depicting Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image: G Cattermole/Public Domain

Most tales of redcaps identify these many ruins as their preferred lairs. Travelers unwittingly seeking shelter in their homes would be ambushed and murdered, their blood used to keep the creatures’ caps wet with blood. If the bloodstains on its cap should ever dry, many tales claim that the redcap would die.

Described as short, heavily built and resembling old men, redcaps possess prominent teeth and red eyes, along with long, thin fingers tipped with hooked claws. Each wears a large red cap as well as heavy iron boots. Invariably they carry a long pike or scythe, again constructed from heavy iron, which they use to kill their victims. Travelers making the mistake of entering their lair would be ambushed with heavy stones dropped from above or ran through with their pikes. Despite their short stature and heavy boots they are quick on their feet, easily able to chase down any escaping survivors. 

The folklorist William Henderson records that dunters and powrie are a distinct species from redcaps, although found in the same Border fortifications and ruins. Rather than attacking visitors directly, powrie would cause a strange sound like the grinding of a mill stone. Hearing the noise was a potent omen of misfortune or even death, particularly if it was louder or longer than usual.

Robin Redcap

Scottish Border noble William II de Soules was said to possess a redcap as a familiar. The creature, known as Robin Redcap, was much feared by the people living close to his master’s home of Hermitage Castle. Some versions of the story even suggest that Robin Redcap was something else entirely, a demon that granted his master significant powers. Well-versed in witchcraft, de Soules and his familiar conducted a reign of terror until locals eventually rose up to overthrow him. Rendered immune to weapons and even hanging by Robin’s powers, de Soules was eventually dragged to the nearby stone circle of Ninestane Rig, where he was boiled alive in molten lead.

Hermitage Castle, the former home of William de Soules and his supposed redcap familiar. Image: Van De Beek/Wikicommons

In reality, William de Soules was imprisoned and ultimately died in Dumbarton Castle after being found guilty of treason, conspiring against King Robert the Bruce to place pretender Edward Balliol on the throne. 

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