You’re probably wondering how The Boy got here, on a pleasant late spring evening, on top of a random boulder at the sewage works. Well, for you to understand, I need to go back to the start.
You see, this isn’t just any old random boulder, in fact this is a very particular boulder and it’s not even random, it was placed here intentionally during the landscaping of the car park for Seafield Sewage Works technical department in the late 1970s.
The boulder has a name. The “Pennybap Stane” (stone), named for its apparent resemblance to a 1p bread roll (a “penny bap”). It was placed here as a feature from the Seafield foreshore during the land reclamation for the sewage works in the mid 1970s. This stone is a large glacial erratic, left behind by a retreating ice sheet, and although it would have been easier to add it to the infill behind the sea wall, they went to the effort of relocating it for a particular reason. You see, this is an enchanted rock.
For the Pennybap Stane is the home of a bogle. A bogle or bogill is a Scots term for either a scarecrow; a childrens’ hiding game (bogle-keek, hide-and-seek); or a bogle-bo / bogill-bae, a hobgoblin, ghost, or a spectre. This last form is the oldest, going back to the 16th century. Related terms include the Middle English bugge or the Old Welsh bwg and these cognate with the modern terms bugbear, bogeyman and bugaboo.
The bogle that calls this rock home is Shellycoat, which as a word that goes back to at least the 17th century and is mentioned in the writings of Alan Ramsay the elder in The Good Shepherd. This bogle is a mysterious creature of Lowland Scots mythology. It is said to haunt the rivers of Liddesdale and Eskdale, particularly the Hermitage Water and the lands of Goranberry. A Perthshire Gaelic equivalent is Peallaidh, or in Lewis, Seonaidh. Shellycoat’s form is a large, man-like creature “clothed in a coat covered with shells, the rattling of which was so unnatural and unexpected, that it appalled the hearts of all who heard it“.
The riparian Shellycoat haunts upland streams, leading country travellers astray with its cries of “Lost! Lost!” and a splashing sound akin to the noise of somebody drowning. No matter how far you follow it, you will never get closer. When Shellycoat tires, it will finally leap past its pursuers and can be heard loudly laughing and clapping, amused with itself. In this form the bogle is a trickster; it likes to tease but does no real harm. The coastal Shellycoat however, which haunts the seashore of Leith, is altogether different. Its coat of shells renders it a powerful, malignant and terrifying force. During the day it will keep its coat safe beneath the Pennybap Stane, rendering it mortal and harmless. However this rock is not just a home for its coat, it is also how you summon Shellycoat to appear.
You summon Shellycoat by running around the rock, three times, chanting three times the following verse:
Shellycoat, Shellycoat, Gang awa hame, I cry nae yer mercy, I fear nae yer name!
The summoning of Shellycoat darkens the skies, and it will appear howling through the skies, accompanied by a cacophony of rattling shells from the heavens, from the direction of Inchkeith island where it is said to reside. Whomever is so bold, or foolish, as to summon the beast will be carried off to their fate beneath the coat of shells. If they are virtuous and promise never to repeat their offence, they will be spared. If they break that promise, the next victim will be dropped into the Forth.
You may think me foolish to encourage a child to try summoning Shellycoat, but moving the Pennybap Stane from its original home on the foreshore appears to have broken the charm. Perhaps they can no longer get their coat beneath. Perhaps.
This isn’t even the first, or only, Pennybap Stane, and there are at least two other erratics recorded on the Leith and Granton foreshore of this name and the smaller “Ha’pennybap Stane” too. The Seafield stone is preceded by one on the North Leith foreshore which stood infront of James Craig’s battery of Leith Fort. Shellycoat is also associated with this same rock, a “monster fiend, gigantic but undefinable, who possessed powers almost infinite, who never undertook anything, no matter how great, which he failed to accomplish; his swiftness that of a spirit and he delighted in deeds of blood and devastation“. When this rock was demolished in 1819 to make way for the new wet cocks, the legend appears to transfer to Seafield, probably because bathers and – more importantly – children were displaced down the coast to the latter location by the building of the docks and encroachment of industry.
In “Tales, Traditions and Antiquities of Leith”, in 1865, William Hutchison relates a story of the North Leith Shellycoat. The 18th century legend features “English Dick”, a man said to descend from Cromwell’s garrison in the Leith Citadel. English Dick refused scornfully to believe in Shellycoat and wagered a gallon of wine that he would go to the Pennybap Stane, perform the summoning ceremony and that nothing would come of it. The wager accepted, the party set off for the North Leith sands that very night. When his drinking companions would go no further, English Dick shook their hands and proceeded alone, promising to return within the half hour. His friends thought better of waiting around and retreated to a tavern – the “Foul Anchor” – to await him in more convivial surroundings. It was hours – and many drinks – later when they noticed that English Dick had not yet returned. Come midnight, they could not summon the courage to search the shore for him, so agreed to remain safely within the pub until first light before venturing out.
Hours passed, and with the first light of a cold dawn, those who were still able to stand finally crept down to the shore, where they found the body of English Dick, insensible at the base of the Pennybap Stane. He was cut, battered and bruised, but he still hung on to life. His recovery was a long and drawn out process, and he refused to tell his friends what had become of him that night. It was many months before he was fit enough to make it down to the “Foul Anchor” and to relate his story of meeting with Shellycoat.
Three times he had run around the stone that night and three times he had chanted the rhyme. Nothing happened. Thinking he was triumphant, he turned to leave and to collect his gallon of wine, when from the direction of Newhaven “without any premonition I was startled by the most appalling noise“. It was as if “all the shells in the universe had been collected together and then carried up into the air by a fierce tempest and dashed against each other with uncontrollable fury“. Looking fearfully around, English Dick then saw the presence of a giant figure emerging from the sea, towering over him with a single stride to the accompaniment of “the infernal clatter and clash of shells“. Then, in a terrifying voice of “singular softness“, Shellycoat demanded to know why he had been summoned, before enveloping English Dick beneath his coat and carrying him off in the sky towards Inchkeith, where he was dropped on the highest promontory of that island.
To the booming laughter of Shellycoat, echoing off the rocks and cliffs of the Fife foreshore, English Dick was now repeatedly hit with blows of earth and rock hurled by his foe. Each time he was thrown down, and each time he was lifted up again to be assaulted once more. The repeated blows and the demonic laugh of Shellycoat caused him to eventually pass out and as the day broke he found himself coming to, floating in the sea. No sooner had he begun to gather his senses than he was picked up again and carried off once more into the skies under the coat of shells. When he was finally released from the grip of the beast he was dropped him from a great height. The next English Dick knew, he was being roused by his friends in the “Foul Anchor”, having been carried there after they found him by the Pennybap Stane.
(An alternative story was put forward by a barfly in a different tavern in Leith: Dick had taken fear from his dare and instead of going straight to the rock, had proceeded to a different establishment to “take courage”. In doing so, he got blind drunk and finally going back to the rock to complete his challenge had climbed atop and fallen off, dashing himself on the rocks and being thrown around by the tide).
You can choose which version of events you believe… But stories like this kept the folk mythology around the Pennybap Stane and Shellycoat alive. The newspapers helped too. The rock is mentioned in the Shetland Times in 1888. In 1899, the Leith Burgh Pilot relates that children would climb atop the stone and jump into the sea from it (they would also climb up the sewer pipes that discharged onto the beach in a different game of dare). In June that year, the body of a “well dressed man” washed up near the Pennybap Stane. It was that of the Rev. William Boe, long time minister of the Scotch Church in Longtown, Cumberland, and then residing in Portobello, who had fallen from a boat at Portobello weeks previously. Children of course came up with a different explanation of how the body came to be in a state of decomposition at the foot of the stone. In 1906, the Scotsman went as far to publish adverts asking its readers “Have You Ever Heard of SHELLYCOAT?” to advertise a new “True Tales of Leith” section in their weekly edition.
But it was long the allure of Shellycoat that drew youngsters beyond the edge of town to run thrice around the stone chanting those lines, “Shellycoat, Shellycoat, Gang awa hame, I cry nae yer mercy, I fear nae yer name” Why not give it a try yourself? Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.
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