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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter X - Water Spirits


Influence of Scenery—Science and Superstition—Loch-nan-Spoiradan—Lochan-nan-Deann—Lochan-Wan and its Sacrifice—Jenny Greenteeth — Poetry and Superstition — Tweed and Till—Dee and Don—Folk-practices for Finding a Drowned Body—Deeside Tradition—Salt used by Tweed Fishers for Good Luck — Guardian-Spirit of Conan — Peg Powler—Water-kelpies— Nikr—Halliwell Boggle—Robin Round Cap —Round Hole, near Flamborough —Aberdeenshire Kelpy Legends—Some Sutherland Kelpies—Story about an Islay Kelpy—Mermaids in the North.

"ONE of the great charms of Highland landscape is the gleam of still water that so often gives the element of repose in a scene of broken cliff and tumbled crag, of noisy cascade and driving cloud. No casual tourist can fail to notice what a wonderful variety of lakes he meets with in the course of any traverse he may take across the country. Among the higher mountains there is the little tarn nestling in a dark sunless corry, and half-encircled with grim snow-rifted crags. In the glen, there is the occasional broadening of the river into a lake that narrows again to let the stream rush down a rocky raving. In the wider strath there is the broad still expanse of water, with its fringe of wood and its tree-covered islets. In the gneiss region of the North-West, there is the little lochan lying in its basin of bare rock and surrounded with scores of others all equally treeless and desolate." So writes Professor Sir A. Geikie in his "Scenery of Scotland." His point of view is that of a scientific observer, keenly alive to all the varied phenomena of nature. But amid the scenes described lived men and women who looked at the outer world through the refracting medium of superstition. They saw the landscape, but they saw also what their own imagination supplied. In Strathspey, is a sheet of water bearing the Gaelic name of Loch-nan-Spoiradan or the Lake of Spirits. What shape these spirits assumed we do not know, but there was no mistake about the form of the spirit who guarded Lochan-nan-Deaan, close to the old military road between Corgarif and Tomintoul. The appearance of this spirit may be gathered from the Rev. Dr. Gregor's remarks in an article on "Guardian Spirits of Wells and Lochs" in "Folklore" for March, 1892. After describing the loch, he says, "It was believed to be bottomless, and to be the abode of a water-spirit that delighted in human sacrifice. Notwithstanding this blood-thirsty spirit, the men of Strathdon and Corgarff resolved to try to draw the water from the loch, in hope of finding the remains of those that had perished in it. On a fixed day a number of them met with spades and picks to cut a way for the outflow of the water through the road. When all were ready to begin work, a terrific yell came from the loch, and there arose from its waters a diminutive creature in shape of a man with a red cap on his head. The men fled in terror, leaving their picks and spades behind them. The spirit seized them and threw them into the loch. Then, with a gesture of defiance at the fleeing men, and a roar that shook the hills, he plunged into the loch and disappeared amidst the water that boiled and heaved as red as blood." Near the boundary, between the shires of Aberdeen and Banf, is a small sheet of water called Lochan-wan, i.e., Lamb's Loch. The district around is now a deer forest, but at one time it was used for grazing sheep. The tenants around had the privilege of pasturing a certain number of sheep. Dr. Gregor says, " Each one that sent sheep to this common had to offer in sacrifice, to the spirit of the loch, the first lamb of his flock dropped on the common. The omission of this sacrifice brought disaster; for unless the sacrifice was made, half of his flock would be drowned before the end of the grazing season." As in the case of Lochan-nan-Deaan, an attempt was made to break the spell by draining the loch, but this attempt, though less tragic in its result, was equally unavailing. On three successive days a channel was made for the outflow of the water, but each night the work was undone. A watch was set, and at midnight of the third day hundreds of small black creatures were seen to rise from the lake, each with a spade in his hand. They set about filling up the trench and finished their work in a few minutes. Mr. Charles Hardwick, in "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore," published in 1872, tells of a folk-belief, prevalent in the North of England, particularly in Lancashire. "I remember well," he says, "when very young, being cautioned against approaching to the side of stagnant pools of water partially covered with vegetation. At the time, I firmly believed that if I disobeyed this instruction a certain water 'boggart,' named Jenny Greenteeth, would drag me beneath her verdant screen and subject me to other tortures besides death by drowning."

Poetry and superstition regard external nature from the same standpoint, in as much as both think of it as animate. But there is a difference. The one endows nature with human qualities, and knows that it does so through the imagination; the other does the same, and believes that there is no imagination in the matter. The work of the former is well expressed by Dr. E. B. Tylor, when he observes, "In all that water does, the poet's fancy can discern its personality of life. It gives fish to the fisher and crops to the husbandman, it swells in fury and lays waste the land, it grips the bather with chill and cramp and holds with inexorable grasp its drowning victim." That rivers were monsters hungering, or perhaps, one should say, thirsting, for human victims is a fact borne witness to by poetry as well as by superstition. An example of this occurs in the following popular rhyme connected with the Scottish Border:—

"Tweed said to Till,
'What gars ye rin sae still'
Till said to Tweed,
'Though ye riu wi' speed,
An' I rin slaw,
Yet whare ye droon no man,
I droon twa.'"

Some Aberdeenshire lines have the same theme:

"Bloodthirsty Dee
Each year needs three;
But bonny Don,
She needs none."

According to folklore, there is no doubt that rivers are "uncanny." Beneath their rippling surface dwells a being who keeps a lookout for the unwary traveller and seeks to draw him into the dark depths. A belief in such a being is not always explicitly avowed. But there are certain folk-practices undoubtedly implying it. When anyone is drowned in a river, the natural way to find the body is to drag the stream in the neighbourhood of the accident. But superstition has recourse to another method. A loaf of bread, with or without quicksilver in it, is placed on the surface of the water and allowed to drift with the current. The place where the loaf becomes stationary marks the spot where the body lies concealed. According to another method, a boat is rowed up and down the stream, and a drum is beat all the time. When the boat passes over the resting place of the body the drum will cease to sound. This was done in Derbyshire no longer ago than 1882, in order to find the corpse of a young woman who had fallen into the Derwent. In such practices there is a virtual recognition of a water-spirit who can, by certain rites, be compelled to give up his prey, or at any rate to disclose the whereabouts of the victim. A Deeside tradition supplies a good illustration of this. A man called Farquharson-na-Cat, i.e., Farquharson of the Wand, so named from his trade of basketmaking, had on one occasion to cross the river just above the famous linn. It was night. He lost his footing, was swept down into the linn, and there drowned. Search was made for his body, but in vain. His wife, taking her husband's plaid, knelt down on the river's brink, and prayed to the water-spirit to give her back her dead. She then threw the plaid into the stream. Next morning her husband's corpse, with the plaid wrapped round it, was found lying on the edge of the pool. Till quite lately, fishing on the Tweed was believed to be influenced by the fairies of the river. Salt was thrown into the water, and sprinkled on the nets to insure a plentiful catch of fish. This was really the offering of a sacrifice to the river-spirits.

Frequently the guardian of the flood appeared in distinctly human shape. An excellent example of this is to be found in Hugh Miller's "My Schools and Schoolmasters," where a picturesque description is given of the spirit haunting the Conan. Hugh Miller was an expert swimmer, and delighted to bathe in the pools of that Ross-shire stream. "Its goblin or water-wraith, he tells us, "used to appear as a tall woman dressed in green, but distinguished chiefly by her withered, meagre countenance, ever distorted by a malignant scowl. I knew all the various fords, always dangerous ones, where of old she used to start, it was said, out of the river before the terrified traveller to point at him as in derision with her skinny finger, or to beckon him invitingly on; and I was shown the very tree to which a poor Highlander had clung when, in crossing the river by night, he was seized by the goblin, and from which, despite of his utmost exertions, though assisted by a young lad, his companion, he was dragged into the middle of the current, where he perished. And when in swimming at sunset over some dark pool, where the eye failed to mark, or the foot to sound, the distant bottom, the twig of some sunken bush or tree has struck against me as I passed, I have felt, with sudden start, as if touched by the cold, bloodless fingers of the goblin." At Pierse Bridge, in Durham, the water-spirit of the Tees went by the name of Peg Powler, and there were stories in the district, of naughty children having been dragged by her into the river.

In the Highlands and Lowlands alike, the spirit inhabiting rivers and lakes was commonly known as the water-kelpy. A south country ballad says:

"The side was steep, the bottom deep
Frae bank to bank the water pouring;
And the bonnie lass did quake for fear,
She heard the water-kelpie roaring."

Who does not remember Burns's lines in his "Address to the Deil"

When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord,
An' float the jinglin' icy-boord,
Then water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction ;
An' 'nighted travellers are allur'd
To their destruction.

An' aft your moss-traversin' spunkles
Decoy the wight that late and drunk is:
The bleezin', curst, mischievous monkeys
Delude his eyes.
Till in some miry slough he sunk is,
Ne'er mair to rise."

The kelpy corresponded in attributes with the Icelandic Nikr; whence has come our term Old Nick, popularly applied to the devil. A well-known picture by Sir Noel Paton has familiarised the story of "Nickar, the soulless" who is there represented as a creature with frog-like feet, but with a certain human look about him, crouching among sedge by the side of water, and playing his ghittern—an instrument resembling a guitar. He appears, however, more melancholy and less mischievous than the other members of his fraternity. A kelpy that idled away his time with music and made no attempt to drown anybody, was quite an exceptional being. In Sweden, where Nikr was regarded with awe, ferrymen at specially dangerous parts of rivers warned those who were crossing in their boat not even to mention his name, lest some mishap should follow. In his "Saxons in England," Mr. J. M. Kemble thus refers to other manifestations of the same creature:—"The beautiful Nix or Nixie who allures the young fisher or hunter to seek her embraces in the wave which brings his death; the Neck who seizes upon and drowns the maidens who sport upon his banks; the river-spirit who still yearly, in some parts of Germany, demands tribute of human life, are all forms of the ancient Nicor." The same writer continues:---"More pleasing is the Swedish Stromkarl, who, from the jewelled bed of his river, watches with delight the children gambol in the adjoining meadows, and singing sweetly to them in the evening, detaches from his hoary hair the sweet blossoms of the water-lily, which he wafts over the surface to their hands." In his "Folklore of East Yorkshire," Mr. J. B. Nicholson alludes to a haunted pool between Bewholme and Atwick, at the foot of the hill on which Atwick Church stands. This pool is shaded by willows, and is believed to be haunted by a spirit known in the district as the Halliwell Boggle. In connection with Robin Round Cap Well, in the same district, Mr. Nicholson tells a story—found also in the south of Scotland—of a certain house-spirit or brownie, who proved so troublesome to the farmer whom he served that his master resolved to remove to other quarters. The furniture was accordingly put in carts and a start was made for the new home. On the way, a friend accosted the farmer and asked if he was flitting. Before he could reply, a voice came from the churn—"Ay, we're flitting!" and, behold, there sat Robin Round Cap. The farmer, seeing that he could not thus rid himself of the spirit, returned to his old home; but, afterwards, he succeeded in charming the brownie into a well, where he still. remains. The same writer relates a superstition about a certain round hole near Flamborough where a girl once committed suicide. "It is believed," he says, "that anyone bold enough to run nine times round this place will see Jenny's spirit come out, dressed in white; but no one has yet been bold enough to venture more than eight times, for then Jenny's spirit called out:—

`Ah'll tee on my bonnet
An' put on me shoe,
An' if thoo's nut off
Ah'l seean catch thoo!``

A farmer, some years ago, galloped round it on horseback, and Jenny did come out, to the great terror of the farmer, who put spurs to his horse and galloped off as fast as he could, the spirit after him. Just on entering the village, the spirit, for some reason unknown, declined to proceed further, but bit a piece clean out of the horse's flank, and the old mare had a white patch there to her dying day,"

In the "Folklore Journal" for 1889, Dr. Gregor relates some kelpy legends collected by him in Aberdeenshire. On one occasion a man had to cross the Don by the bridge of Luib, Corgarff, to get to his wife who was then very ill. When he reached the river, he found that the bridge—a wooden one—had been swept away by a flood. He despaired of reaching the other bank, when a tall man suddenly appeared and offered to carry him across. The man was at first doubtful, but ere long accepted the proffered help. When they reached the middle of the river, the kelpy, who had hitherto shown himself so obliging, sought to plunge his burden beneath the water. A struggle ensued. The man finally found a foothold, and, disengaging himself from the kelpy, scrambled in all haste up the bank. His would-be destroyer, disappointed of his victim, hurled a boulder after him. This boulder came to be known as the Kelpy's Stane. Passers-by threw a stone beside it till eventually a heap was formed, locally styled the Kelpy's Cairn. A Braemar kelpy stole a sackful of meal from a mill to give it to a woman for whom he had taken a fancy. As the thief was disappearing, the miller caught sight of him and threw a fairy-whorl at his retreating figure. The whorl broke his leg, and the kelpy fell into the mill-race and was drowned. Such was the fate of the last kelpy seen in Braemar. Sutherland, too, abounded in water-spirits. They used to cross the mouth of the Dornoch Firth in cockle-shells, but, getting tired of this mode of transit, they resolved to build a bridge. It was a magnificent structure, the piers being headed with pure gold. A countryman, happening to pass, saw the bridge, and invoked a blessing on the workmen and their work. Immediately, the workmen vanished, and their work sank beneath the waves. Where it spanned the Firth there is now a sandbar dangerous to mariners. Miss Dempster, who recounts this legend in the "Folklore Journal" for 1888, supplies further information about the superstition of the district. A banshee, adorned with gold ornaments and wearing a silk dress, was seen hurrying down a hill near the river Shin, and finally plunging into one of its deep pools. These banshees were commonly web-footed, and seemed addicted to finery, if we may judge from the instance just given, and from another mentioned by Mr. Campbell in his "Tales of the West Highlands." He there speaks of one who frequented a stream about four miles from Skibo Castle in Dornoch parish. The miller's wife saw her. "She was sitting on a stone, quiet, and beautifully dressed in a green silk dress, the sleeves of which were curiously puffed from the wrists to the shoulder. Her long hair was yellow like ripe corn, but on nearer view she had no nose." Miss Dempster narrates the following incident connected with the water-spirit haunting another Sutherland river:—"One, William Munro, and the grandfather of the person from whom we have this story, were one night leading half-a-dozen pack-horses across a ford in the Oikel, on their way to a mill. When they neared the river bank a horrid scream from the water struck their ears. 'It is the Vaiegh,' cried the lad, who was leading the first horse, and, picking up some stones, he sent a shower of them into the deep pool at his feet. She must have been repeatedly hit, as she emitted a series of the most piercing shrieks. 'I am afraid,' said Monro, `that you have not done that right, and that she will play us an ugly trick at the ford.' `Never mind, we will take more stones,' he answered, arming himself with a few. But the kelpy had had enough of stones for one night."

Off the Rhinns of Islay is a small island formerly used for grazing cattle. A strong tide sweeps past the island, making the crossing of the Sound dangerous. A story, related by Mr. Campbell, tells that on a certain boisterous night a woman was left in charge of a large herd of cattle on the island. She was sitting in her cabin, when all at once she heard strange noises outside, and, looking up, saw a pair of large eyes gazing in at her through the window. The door opened, and a strange creature strode in. He was tall and hairy, with a livid covering on his face instead of skin. He advanced towards the woman and asked her name. She replied in Gaelic, "Mise mi Fhin ""Me myself." He then seized her. In her terror she threw a ladleful of boiling water on the intruder. Yelling with pain he bounded out of the hut. These unearthly voices asked what was the matter, and who had hurt him? "Mise mi Fhin" --"Me myself," replied the creature. The answer was received with a shout of laughter from his mysterious companions. The woman rushed out of the hut, and dislodging one of the cows lay down on the spot, at the same time making a magical circle round her on the ground. All night she heard terrible sounds mingling with the roaring of the wind. In the morning the supernatural manifestations disappeared, and she felt herself safe. It had not fared, however, so well with the cow, for, when found, it was dead.

In Chapter I. reference was made to mermen and mermaids, and little requires to be added in the present connection. In the south of Scotland the very names of these sea-spirits have a far-off sound about them. No one beside the Firths of Forth and Clyde expects nowadays to catch sight of such strange forms sitting on rocks, or playing among the breakers; but among our Northern Isles it is otherwise. Every now and again (at long intervals, perhaps) the mysterious mermaid makes her appearance, and gives new life to an old superstition. About three years since, one was seen at Deerness in Orkney. She reappeared last year, and was then noticed by some lobstermen who were working their creels. She had a small black head, white body, and long arms. Somewhat later, a creature, believed to be this mermaid, was shot not far from the shore, but the body was not captured. In June of the present year another mermaid was seen by the Deerness people. At Birsay, recently, a farmer's wife was down at the sea-shore, and observed a strange creature among the rocks. She went back for her husband, and the two returned quite in time to get a good view of the interesting stranger. The woman spoke of the mermaid as "a good-looking person"; while her husband described her as "having a covering of brown hair." Curiosity seems to have been uppermost in the minds of the couple, for they tried to capture the creature. In the interests of folklore, if not of science, she managed to escape, and was quickly lost to sight beneath the waves. Perhaps, as the gurgling waters closed over her, she may have uttered an alt revoir, or whatever corresponds to that phrase in the language of the sea. The following story about a mermaid, told by Mr. J. H. Dixon in his "Gairloch," published in 1886, is fully credited in the district where the incident occurred:—"Roderick Mackenzie, the elderly and much respected boat-builder at Port Henderson, when a young man, went one day to a rocky part of the shore there. Whilst gathering bait he suddenly spied a mermaid asleep among the rocks. Rorie `went for' that mermaid, and succeeded in seizing her by the hair. The poor creature in great embarrassment cried out that if Rorie would let go she would grant him whatever boon he might ask. He requested a pledge that no one should ever be drowned from any boat he might build. On his releasing her the mermaid promised that this should be so. The promise has been kept throughout Rorie's long business career—his boats still defy the stormy winds and waves." Mr. Dixon adds, "I am the happy possessor of an admirable example of Rorie's craft. The most ingenious framer of trade advertisements might well take a hint from this veracious anecdote."


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