The Fairytale Traveler

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Disney Brave: Landscape and Legends of the Scotland

The feisty, redheaded princess from the hit movie from Disney Brave has joined Once Upon a Time during the fifth season, played by Amy Manson. But unlike other characters in the show, Merida is not a well-recognized princess, and Disney Brave is not a retelling of a classic fairy tale. Instead, it is a mixture of folklore and culture from Scotland, and Merida’s homeland is every bit as wild and enchanting as her!

Sightseeing – Real Places Which Inspired Disney Brave

Scotland is an ancient place, filled with natural and supernatural wonders. From the mountains of the Highlands to vast lochs and glens, it is no wonder that Pixar chose it as the basis for a story.

Standing Stones of the Outer Hebrides

One of the most iconic places in Disney Brave is the circle of standing stones. Not only do they look imposing, but Merida’s horse refuses to cross them and it is here that she sees the mysterious wisps (more on those later!) which lead her to the witch’s cottage. Clearly, they are a very auspicious place, and not entirely fictional, either.

In the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago on Scotland’s northern edge is the Isle of Lewis. Here you will find the Calanais (pronounced Callanish) standing stones. Like in Disney Brave, this is a circle formed of upright stones. Whilst it is certain the Calanais stones were erected around 5,000 years ago, it is unclear what they were used for. The best suggestion is an astronomical observatory, or meeting place for ancient religious ceremonies.

Glen Affric

Much of the dark, broody scenery used in Disney Brave came from Glen Affric. This national nature reserve in the Highland region is a mixture of woodland, loch, and moors. It’s a great place for experiencing the great outdoors with hiking, picnics, and mountain climbing.

Scotland Glen Affric Disney Brave
An Tudair by Spodzone

Fishing for Salmon

Another iconic part in Disney Brave is when Merida and her mother in bear form go fishing. Whilst you will no longer find bears in Scotland, you will find salmon. Every year between May and November, wild salmon battle with upstream currents to reach their breeding grounds. If you go to the Falls of Shin during this time, you can watch their plight. Wild fish are something you don’t often see – especially ones leaping amongst clear waterfalls!

The Falls of Shin Disney Brave

Falls of Shin by Bob Hall

History – Where Merida Comes From

Merida is the daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor, making her a princess. Well, sort of. Merida’s family are the rulers of the fictional DunBroch clan. In Scotland, a clan is a group of kinship. Clans still exist today, and the origins of some can be traced back as far as the 11th century. So, Merida is a princess in that she is the princess of her clan, but there would have been many clans living in close quarters and so many other ruling families.

Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire

Merida and her family live in a walled castle on the edge of a cliff. This is not entirely a real Scottish castle, but its design is based on Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire. It is uncertain when Dunnottar Castle was built, but the area it stands in has been inhabited since Pictish times (5000BC-700AD). So basically, it’s old! Although now fallen into ruin, Dunnottar Castle still has walls intact and also stands on a cliff edge, just like the castle in Disney Brave.

*Note there’s been some discussion over whether DunBroch Castle was used as the inspiration or Dunnottar. According to Visit Scotland, it’s Dunnottar, according to Adventures by Disney it is DunBroch. According to us, see them both, they’re both magnificent.

Dunnottar Castle Scotland Disney Brave
Dunnottar Castle by Neil Williamson

Archery and Highland Games

Merida’s archery skills are unrivaled. She can hit targets whilst on horseback, and easily outdoes the sons of the clan chiefs who compete for her hand in marriage. Historically, Scottish clans competed in tournaments to win honor. If you fancy having a go at this ancient sport yourself, there are many archery centres in the Highlands which cater for all levels of experience.

The Lewis Chessmen

Merida’s mother uses a chess set to demonstrate the legend of the ancient kingdom. The pieces in this set strongly resemble the 12th century set discovered by archaeologists in a bay on the Isle of Lewis. The Lewis Chessmen as they came to be known, are one of the few complete medieval chess sets. Today, some of them are on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Scotland Lewis Chessmen Disney Brave
Lewis Chessmen by Plainjane

Folklore – Scottish Legends Featured in Brave


The central theme of Disney Brave is fate, and how it can be changed. To avoid an arranged marriage, Merida purchases a spell from a witch which turns her mother into a bear. In Celtic mythology, there is a bear goddess called Artio. She was worshipped by the Helvettii tribe, who were originally from Switzerland but eventually migrated to the UK and brought Artio with them. White bear-shaped candles were carved to light in her honour, and she was called upon during hunting rituals. She was also a very feminine goddess, due to her close link to nature. Artio could have partly inspired Queen Elinor’s transformation.

The Will-O-Wisps

Fate is also connected to wisps. From the circle of standing stones, Merida sees a trail of wisps which lead her to the witch’s cottage. Wisps are depicted as little, spirit-like creatures which glow blue. Known in folklore as will-o’-the-wisps, these small lights are said to lead people to their fate. They are actually a natural occurrence, created by gas from marshes and bogs. They appear a lot in Scottish folk tales, sometimes leading to treasure, others to doom. So it might be best not to follow them, unless you’re truly brave like Merida!

Merida’s wild personality and her roots in this bold, mystical landscape make her a very unique princess. Her courage and determination help her change her fate, and we’re sure they will land in more adventures in Once Upon a Time – wisps or no wisps!

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What’s your favorite takeaway from Brave? Would you explore these places?

Featured Image Calanais Standing Stones by VisitScotland

Amy Elize

Amy Elize is a writer and storyteller with a passion for folklore and fairy tales. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, and is currently living in Japan and working as an English teacher.

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