Podcast Episode: Cù Bòcan and the Haunting of Tomatin
A remote Highland town on the edge of the Cairngorms and the spectral beast that inspired a whisky.
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The ghost legend of small Highland village thanks to a single malt
When you see a bottle of Cù Bòcan Single Malt Whisky know that the name was inspired by a spectral beast that roams the Highlands of Scotland. Is it wolf? Is it a ghost dog? Hear the legends that compel villagers to take extra precautions when driving the hills of this beautiful Scottish town.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
Cù Bòcan has stalked residents of the remote Highland village of Tomatin for centuries, his legend embellished by the hellhound's increasingly fractious behaviour.
Sightings are rare, once in a generation, always terrifying. A distillery worker, out walking late, was once relentlessly pursued by an imposing black beast, steam spiralling from flared nostrils, teeth bared.
Compelled beyond all natural reason to feel the hound's dense fur he stopped and reached out, hand trembling,
only to see the ghostly spectre - Cù Bòcan - dissolve before his eyes leaving nothing but a vacuum of deathly silence and an inky blue cloud of smoke, soon spirited away across the peat moorland…
That my friends, was a story I read on the side of a box of Cù Bòcan Single Malt Whisky, produced by the Tomatin distillery in a small village nestled in the Highlands of Scotland.
I was on a road trip through Scotland and had stopped to spend the night by the River Spey, and happened into a Public House and Inn called the Mash Tun. I asked Kevin the bartender to assemble a flight of some excellent whiskies that had peat smoke in their flavor profiles.
Of the pack, my favorite was the Cù Bòcan’s 2006 expression. So I asked to see the box, read it, let my mind fill to its very edges with questions, (ding) and an idea was born born. Why not do a podcast where I find all of these cool stories and share them with my listeners.
Suddenly, every distillery I was visiting was filling me full of great story ideas. And when I returned home, I started to research some of the fun stories I had scribbled down in my notes (okay, I actually used Google Keep, but stay with me).
The story of this spectral beast was at the top of my list to investigate. I was sure there would be a plethora of articles about this mysterious shape that was haunting the village of Tomatin. No such luck. Even the Tomatin Distillery’s own website was shockingly silent on story details. And when I did web searches, I found everyone telling the exact same story - the one from the box. Some paraphrasing, others downright plagiarizing.
The most I could find was that Cù Bòcan is Scots Gaelic for “Black Dog” or “Black Hound”
So then I reached out to the distillery. Crickets. Then I found the Strathdearn Community website, Tomatin being a village situated in the Strathdearn river valley. After filling out the web form, I heard from Steve who said he would see if he could find me a contact at the Distillery, and then was nice enough to put a call out on the community’s Facebook Group for anyone with information - and he supplied me with a couple of leads from a local storyteller named John Ferguson, whose nickname was Pedlar because he was frequently seen around the village riding his bike. He had written a book with some stories about his life living in the area and some of the tales that he’d heard from other villagers.
One of his stories goes like this:
"A very spooky incident happened on the Back Station road. It happened one dark night in the early 1950’s when Mother was cycling home from the Freeburn Inn where she worked part-time. Out of nowhere came a big dog knocking her off her bike. It was a big black stag hound type of dog and after asking around who would have such a dog no one had seen or heard of it until one night when we had a visit from Jimmy Dunbar. He had all the folklore stories of the district and he told her the tale about the Witch of Laggan and that the hound she had seen was old Nick (the devil) who roams about waiting for the Witch to come out of Dalarossie Churchyard. Needless to say Mother would never walk or cycle up that road on her own in the dark again."
Steve shared another story from Pedlar from the 1940’s as well.
I thought, now we’re getting somewhere.
A few days later Steve gave me the email address of someone at the distillery. When she replied, she told me that the company had decided that ghost dog lore wasn’t doing a great job of selling their whisky and they were moving away from the story to focus on the product itself. I was disappointed. But she offer up that the story had two potential origins. One was a story about the last wolf in Scotland and the other was about the Witch of Laggan.
Got it! The lead I was looking for. It was time to read the legend of the Witch of Laggan, which Steve had provided to me in an email. He also got me in touch with another local, Duncan Bryden, who offered to meet with me and offer up some stories and fill in the gaps for me, when I returned to Scotland in a few weeks.
I’ll share some of the stories and background he provided me during our walk, in a moment. But first, the story of the Witch of Laggan.
The Witch of Laggan
Being the curious traveler I am, after reading the story, I started looking up all of these little places mentioned tale. I found the Dalarossie Church on a map and decided to head out there before meeting Duncan, to sort of get the lay of the land. It was quite the little drive, especially for an American driver, used to wide roads. The road is in fine condition, but it's a single track road and winds around quite a few blind hills and curves. But once you get there, the little storybook church at the bend of the River Findhorn doesn’t disappoint And it’s surrounded by a stone wall with gravestones all around it. You really get in the mood of the story.
But as far out as it was, I tried to imagine someone trying to run down these roads at night, especially when they were coming from miles away. I asked Duncan about the witches experience,
I tried to imagine this witch being pursued by these two dogs down this little back country road. And I asked Duncan about distance she would have run if the story were true…
And what you’ll find about these old tales is that many times, they are cautionary tales - such as the version I just read which is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you give in to the devil.
Pedler also has a version where he suggests that the people of the area would immediately baptise their infants for fear of the witch appeared as a cat and suck the breath out of the children. This explains why the witch took a cat’s form, and it could well be a story that grew legs after because of a real issue of day where cats would enter a cradle and smother a baby.
His story also has an additional layer and a slightly different ending. When she is running to the churchyard, she turns herself into a hare and the devil turned himself into a hound. In that story, she makes the churchyard, and being on consecrated ground, the devil (Old Nick) can’t enter. That story suggests the dog wanders around the village, waiting for her to leave the churchyard.
Duncan reveals another local legend around a witch and a hare...
But with all the legends around witches, there is another theory as to where this ghost dog comes from.
As we walked along, Duncan pointed out areas where some of the wolf traps still exist. Apparently wolves used to be a major problem in Scotland. In fact, King James VI made it compulsory that wolves be hunted three times a year to get their populations down. But apparently they did their jobs a little too well.
I asked if he’d heard of any the tales of hauntings himself...
So who is Cù Bòcan? Is it the spirit of one of the Hunter’s dogs, left searching for the Witch of Laggan? Is it the last wolf of Scotland, haunting the area of it’s final demise? Or is it just people with a wild imagination, or just a fun ghost story to tell?
As many legends and fables go, we may never know. But next time you see a bottle of Cù Bòcan on the shelves. You can think of the tiny village of Tomatin, and the spectral animal that haunts the peat moorlands….