From Scottish water monsters and Irish giants to the legendary kings and outlaws of England, the United Kingdom is an island nation built on the foundations of myth and legend. Some of these tales are inspired by real places, which visitors with a passion for the mysterious can explore for themselves.
Tintagel Castle, Cornwall
The ruins of Tintagel Castle stand on the cliffs above Cornwall’s dramatic north coast. Dating back to the 13th century, they are all that’s left of an ambitious building project by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. It’s thought that the earl was inspired to build his castle here by evidence of a much earlier stronghold, where the rulers of Cornwall lived from the 5th to the 7th centuries. It was in this original castle that 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that the legendary King Arthur was conceived.
According to Monmouth, the conception occurred after King Uther Pendragon asked the sorcerer Merlin to disguise him as his rival, the Duke of Cornwall, so that he could sleep with his beautiful wife. 15th-century accounts claim that Arthur was born at Tintagel as well, while 19th-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne tied Tintagel to Tristan and Isolde with his epic poem, "Tristram of Lyonesse." In it, he claims that Tintagel was the seat of King Mark of Cornwall, Isolde’s husband, whom she cheats on with Tristan with tragic results.
Today, the imposing ruins are split into two parts; one on the mainland and one on an island headland, connected by a bridge. It is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and managed as a visitor attraction by English Heritage.
Stone circles are found in many places across the UK, but the most famous of them is undoubtedly Stonehenge. Located on Salisbury Plain near Amesbury in Wiltshire, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its status as the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle globally. A concentric circle of Wiltshire Sarsen and Pembrokeshire Bluestone megaliths (some of them connected by giant lintel stones), Stonehenge is over 5,000 years old.
The incredible feat of its construction—with some stones transported from over 150 miles away and others weighing in at over 40 tons—has led to many myths about the circle’s origin. One of the most popular comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale that the monoliths were transported from Africa by Irish giants who wanted their healing powers; then stolen from Ireland on the orders of 5th-century king Aurelius Ambrosius. Ambrosius enlisted Merlin’s help to move the stones and instated them on Salisbury Plain as a memorial for 3,000 noblemen killed in battle.
The stones are now protected by English Heritage and can be viewed on guided or self-guided tours that give further insight into their history and mythology.
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim
Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Giant’s Causeway, a stretch of coastland on County Antrim's shores defined by approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. Most of these columns are hexagonal in shape, with the tallest measuring around 39 feet in height. Scientifically speaking, these strange structures are the result of dramatic volcanic activity during the Paleocene Epoch (some 50 to 60 million years ago), which caused an upwelling of molten basalt that then contracted as it cooled to form the columns.
Local mythology tells a different tale. Together the columns form natural stepping stones that disappear beneath the ocean. This inspired the legend that they are the remains of a causeway built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool, to allow his rival Benandonner to come over from Scotland for a fight. When Benandonner arrived, Finn was intimidated by his size. He asked his wife to disguise him as her baby; so that when Benandonner saw him, he was so afraid of how big the father must be that he fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway as he went. Identical basalt columns exist on the Scottish coast, at Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa.
The Giant’s Causeway is owned and managed by the National Trust but can be visited free of charge.
Loch Ness, Scottish Highlands
Located southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, Loch Ness is the largest lake by volume in the British Isles, measuring 755 feet at its deepest point. It’s also one of the murkiest, and its mysterious, impenetrable nature is largely responsible for one of the most famous Scottish legends of all time: the Loch Ness Monster. Reports of a mythological water creature living in Loch Ness date back to prehistoric times, when the local Picts depicted an unknown flippered beast in their stone carvings.
In 595 AD, St. Columba wrote about a beast living in the lake that bit a swimmer; and in the 20th century, “Nessie” sightings became a relatively frequent occurrence, with more than 1,000 people claiming to have laid eyes on the Loch Ness Monster. Much of the evidence given for a real-life monster (including a set of footprints and a photograph that shows a plesiosaur-like animal emerging from the lake’s surface) have been proven to be hoaxes. Nevertheless, Nessie remains one of Scotland’s most enduring legends. In the early 21st century, tourism connected to the myth generated nearly $80 million annually.
Loch Ness is free to visit and can be easily accessed by road from Inverness, either in your own car or via public bus.
Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
There are many chalk figures in the UK, all of them with their own unique mythology. The Cerne Abbas Giant is probably the most famous, mainly because it depicts a 180-foot, naked man with a prominent erection. We know how the giant was made: by cutting shallow trenches into the turf and filling them with chalk rubble so that the lines stand out vividly against the hillside's green grass above Cerne Abbas village in Dorset. However, the age and origin of the figure are less certain.
Some historians believe it to be an ancient carving, possibly of a Saxon deity or of a British interpretation of the Roman god and hero, Hercules. Other historians believe the carving to be much more recent since there’s no written evidence of it before the 17th century, while local folklore maintains that the image is the outline of a real giant that the people of Cerne Abbas beheaded while he slept and buried on the hillside. According to legend, the figure has the power to grant fertility to childless couples—especially if they consummate their relationship on top of the giant’s phallus!
Testing this theory is difficult since access to the carving is restricted to prevent erosion. However, you can get a look at it from the viewing point above the village.
Nottingham and Surrounds, Nottinghamshire
If Scotland’s most famous legend is the Loch Ness Monster, then England’s is probably Robin Hood. Whether you believe the rebel outlaw to be a historical figure or a much-loved folk story, his stomping ground was undoubtedly the town (now city) of Nottingham and the surrounding Sherwood Forest. As such, the city has now become a place of pilgrimage for Robin Hood fans. Start your adventure at Nottingham Castle, where Hood's bronze statue stands defiantly pointing an arrow through the castle gates.
Next, venture into Sherwood Forest, where marked trails take you to the Major Oak, where Hood and his Merry Men are said to have lived and taken refuge from the Sheriff of Nottingham. In the nearby town of Edwinstowe, St. Mary’s Church is rumored to be the place where the Prince of Thieves married Maid Marian, while Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham itself is the oldest pub in the country. It was a popular drinking spot for returning crusader knights (like Robin Hood, in some versions of the tale).
To get the most out of your trip, join the guided Robin Hood Town Tour or time your visit to coincide with the annual Robin Hood Festival for seven days of medieval reenactments, storytelling, sword fighting, and archery.
The coastal town of Whitby is steeped in legend, from tales of mermaids washing up in a storm on the beach at nearby Staithes to a mythical beast named the Barghest that’s said to roam the local moors. Perhaps Whitby’s most famous otherworldly connection is not an ancient myth at all, but Bram Stoker’s fictional masterpiece, "Dracula," which is inspired by and partially set in this quaint North Yorkshire town. Stoker stayed in Whitby in 1890 and discovered the name Dracula in a book about Vlad the Impaler in Whitby library.
In the novel, the blood-sucking count makes his first appearance on British soil when a Russian ship runs aground on the Whitby coast, its crew and captain already dead. The only sign of life is a great black dog that bounds off the ship and up the 199 steps of Whitby Abbey. The dog, of course, is Dracula in animal form. The Abbey, now in spectacular ruins following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and sustained bombing during the First World War, continues to be a popular destination for "Dracula" fans and is operated by English Heritage.
Don’t forget to look for the tombstone of a man named Swales in the graveyard of next-door St. Mary’s Church. Legend has it that Mr. Swales in the novel was named after this deceased Whitby resident.
Corryvreckan Whirlpool, Argyll and Bute
Found on the west coast of Scotland in between Jura and Scarba, Corryvreckan Whirlpool is the third-largest permanent whirlpool in the world. Caused by water rushing through the strait and around an underwater pinnacle, its roar can be heard from over 10 miles away at its peak, and at full strength, the raging current can produce waves that are more than 30 feet tall. This mighty natural phenomenon is the inspiration for several lesser-known local legends.
One of these myths dictates that a local sea witch created the whirlpool to protect Scotland from a marauding Irish pirate. Another claims that the gulf is used by Cailleach Bheur, the hag goddess of winter, to wash her tartan every fall. When she has finished, the cloth becomes the white blanket of snow covering the surrounding landscape at the start of winter. The most famous legend of all concerns a Norwegian prince, who sought a Scottish princess's hand only to be told by her father that he must prove his love by staying afloat in the whirlpool for three days. He fails and is drowned.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the UK. Nevertheless, experienced operators like Jura Boat Tours offer visitors the chance to see the whirlpool up close.