Beyond Sleepy Hollow: Other Headless Horsemen

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving is one of my favorite spooky stories. I grew up attending and still attend a Headless Horseman Festival in my hometown of Fishers, Indiana. My favorite part? A haunted hayride through the woods with a headless horseman chasing us along the way. It is so realistic and thrilling.

Headless Horsemen are not limited to Irving’s story, though. Today, I am going to share five more headless horsemen.

Hold on to your heads! 

The Wild Hunt (German and Scandinavian Folklore) 

In German and Scandinavian folklore, both the phantom rider and horse are pitch black. They can gallop on the ground and in the air. Sometimes these headless horsemen are said to be outcasts from The Wild Hunt, which is a folklore motif concerning mythical or supernatural beings leading hunts across the sky, leaving disaster and death along the way.

The horsemen could also be great chiefs who lost their heads in battle or were beheaded. 

Source: A Dictionary of Ghost Lore by Peter Haining (p. 87)

The Dullahan (Ireland) 

The Dullahan rides a black horse across the countryside, holding his head under one arm and a human spine as a whip in the other hand. The head’s flesh has the color and consistency of moldy cheese and the eyes constantly move.

The Dullahan sometimes drives a wagon (called a coach-a-bower, or death coach) pulled by six black horses. The wagon is made of human skin and adorned with skulls. The wheel spokes are made of thigh bones. 

If you hear the horse’s hooves, don’t look out the window! You may have blood thrown in your face or you may become blind. When the Dullahan stops in front of your house…death is coming. The demonic fairy will call your name, pulling out your soul and watching as you drop dead immediately. Some say gold (even the smallest amount) will protect you from the Dullahan.

Source: Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, Wikipedia, A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran 

Ewan the Headless (Scotland) 

In the 1500s,  Ewan of the Little Head from the Maclaines of Lochbuie branch of Clan Gillean, lost his head in battle. His army went head to head (pun intended) against his father’s army (Ian the Toothless of Lochbuie) and the other branch of Clan Gillean, Macleans of Duart. These two branches paused their rivalry to thwart Ewan’s attempt to dispose of his ill father.

Obviously, Ewan lost the battle and his head. He was decapitated when he charged into battle in a last ditch effort. Legend says that, even without his head, he kept fighting (or his body was just moving around a lot). He wounded some enemies before his horse took off. They called the battle off. 

The horse and a headless Ewan returned home. His body sat upright in the horse and was still twitching. It must be the work of the devil! Thinking they found the source of evil, they decapitated the horse. Ewan was buried. 

The ghost of Ewan and his horse, both headless, still ride around the Highlands. Some say if you see this headless horseman, you will soon die. When a member of Lochbuie Maclaine dies, the family can feel Ewan’s presence and hear the sound of ghostly hooves. 

One version of the story I found online tells of Ewan coming across a Bean Nighe (banshee) before his battle. She was washing a bloody shirt in the water. Coming across the Bean Nighe is a very bad omen, but Ewan had a solution (kind of).

Ewan snuck up behind her, while she is sang a lament of soldiers who had fallen in battle. Ewan took her breast in his mouth and suckled it like a baby. He told her that he is her first born, so she granted him a wish (I am not sure where he got this idea). Ewan asked what the outcome of the battle would be. She replied: “If tomorrow morning you are given butter with your porridge without asking then you will be victorious.” Ewan was angry at this answer and cursed the washer woman. It is not a good idea to curse a washer woman. (ScotClans)

And, as you know, he died. 

Source: Hunting the Headless Horseman by Mark Latham (p. 50) , Tales and Traditions of Scottish Castles by Nigel Trantner (p. 30), and

Allens Lane’s Headless Horseman (Pennsylvania)

In Philadelphia, witnesses have reported a headless horseman in Revolutionary War garb, riding along Allens Lane in Mount Airy with his head in his hands. Legend says he was a British solider who was decapitated at the Battle of Germantown. Sightings were reported as early as the Revolutionary War. 

Source: Haunted Philadelphia: Famous Phantoms, Sinister Sites, and Lingering Legends by Darcy Oordt (p. 156) 

Coral Hill’s Headless Horseman (Kentucky) 

I saw this story floating around on the internet and I just loved it. A man was traveling home (I have not been able to pinpoint dates) when he spotted a ghostly headless horseman. Well, this ghost followed him home. When his family woke up, they saw the headless horseman in the yard and all their windows and doors were open. Imagine that scene. Source: Courier Journal

Featured Image: John Quidor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cemetery Tour: Greyfriars Kirkyard

edin4A few years ago, I traveled to Scotland for 3 months for my PhD program. As someone that has toured many small town cemeteries in America, the Scottish cemeteries were quite the cultural shock. Before reaching my final destination of Dundee, Scotland, I stayed in Edinburgh for a few days. When not drinking Scotch and reading in pubs, I was in Greyfriars Kirkyard: a graveyard that houses a loyal dog and a violent poltergeist. Burying people since the late 16th century, the graveyard is home to many interesting people and stories.

foodlog 026

Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who supposedly guarded his deceased owner’s grave in the kirkyard for 14 years. After Bobby passed on January 14, 1872, he was buried not too far from his owner’s grave. When I saw his grave (below) it was covered with sticks, which I assumed were for a heavenly game of fetch. A fountain (above) was built on the corner of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. While some challenge the validity of the story, I think it’s too sweet to fact-check.

foodlog 028

While a sweet dog sleeps near his owner, another resident attacks visitors. Located in the graveyard is an eerie mausoleum (below) with the tomb of Sir George Mackenzie. Nicknamed Bluidy Mackenzie, he is buried among many that he harmed on earth:

In the 17th century, Scotland was going through an intense religious struggle, started by King Charles introducing the Common Book of Prayer and declaring all opposition to the book an act of treason and the draconian lawyer George Mackenzie was the man responsible for putting the opposition down.

George Mackenzie was a lawyer and the Lord Advocate during the rule of Charles II and quickly earned a reputation as one of the most vicious persecutors of the covenanters, the people who rose up and signed the National Covenant in 1638, around. Mackenzie’s brutal and unfeeling treatment of the protesters even earned him the moniker “Bluidy Mackenzie.” Many covenanters were imprisoned in a section of Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where he delighted in their torture; guards were allowed to beat the covenanters at will, and eventually their heads would decorate the spiked gate. (Atlas Obscura)

The violent history related to the kirkyard has left an aggressive residual energy, leaving many visitors with scratch marks and bites:

The earliest story relates to a boy from the adjacent George Heriot’s School fleeing a corporal punishment and hiding within the tomb. He allegedly became trapped inside and went mad as a result. More tangible as a story is the 2004 verified story of teenage Goths who entered the tomb via the ventilation slot to the rear (now sealed). They reached the lower vault (containing the coffins) broke the coffins open and stole a skull. Police arrived as they were playing football with the skull on the grass. The pair narrowly escaped imprisonment on the little-used but still extant charge of violation of the dead.

In 1998 a new phenonenum materialised dubbed The Mackenzie Poltergeist. Between 1990 and 2006 it is alleged that there were 350 reported attacks and 170 reports of people collapsing. Night-time visitors (on the ghost-tours) reported being cut, bruised, bitten, scratched and most commonly blacking out. Some complained later of bruises, scratches and gouge-marks on their bodies. No day-time events were reported. Most attacks and feelings of unease occurred in MacKenzie’s Black Mausoleum and the Covenantors Prison. As a publicity stunt this also led in 2000, to an exorcist exorcising the graveyard. (Wikipedia)

I luckily left his grave unscathed and the doors are locked, which stopped me from doing anything stupid.

If you are brave enough, maybe you can visit and sing the old children’s rhyme: “Bluidy Mackingie, come oot if ye daur, lift the sneck and draw the bar!” Or not. Probably don’t.

The poltergeist was featured on Episode 19: “Bite Marks” of the Lore podcast, which I highly recommend.

Bluidy Mackenzie’s tomb




foodlog 030
I like how chill this guy looks on his gravestone.

Greyfriars Kirkyard is an interesting representation of the good and evil on earth…and in the afterlife. A place where many are laid to rest, the graveyard is alive in many ways. As the Scottish writer Walter Scott once said, “Death–the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening.”