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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter XI - More Water Spirits


Water-horses and Water-bulls—Highland Superstition--Spiritual Water-demon and Material Water-monster—Water-bulls of Loch Llundavra and Loch Achtriachtan—Water-horses of Loch Treig—Kelpy of Loch Ness—Water-horse Bridles—Pontago Pool--Kelpy's Footprint—MacCulloch and Sir Walter Scott—Recent Example of Belief in Water-monster—Tarroo-Ushtey in the Isle of Man—Other Water-spirits—Dragon—Black-dog—Fly—Fish—Demons—Origin of Well-worship.

So far we have been dealing with water-spirits more or less human in form. Another class consists of those with the shape and attributes of horses and bulls. The members of this class are connected specially with Highland districts. Lonely lochs were their favourite haunts. In treeless regions, a belief in such creatures would naturally arise. Any ordinary animal in such an environment would appear of a larger size than usual, and the eye of the beholder would transmit the error to his imagination, thereby still further magnifying the creature's bulk. In some instances, the notion might arise even when there was no animal on the scene. A piece of rock, or some other physical feature of the landscape would be enough to excite superstitious fancies. Mr. Campbell remarks, "In Sutherland and elsewhere, many believe that they have seen these fancied animals. I have been told of English sportsmen who went in pursuit of them, so circumstantial were the accounts of those who believed they had seen them. The witnesses are so numerous, and their testimony agrees so well, that there must be some old deeply-rooted Celtic belief which clothes every object with the dreaded form of the Each Uisge, i.e., Water-horse." When waves appeared on a lake, and there seemed no wind to account for them, superstitious people readily grasped at the idea that the phenomenon was due to the action of some mysterious water-spirit. As Dr. Tylor points out, there seems to have been a confusion "between the `spiritual water-demon' and the `material water-monster." Any creature found in or near the water would naturally be reckoned its guardian spirit.

The Rev. Dr. Stewart gives the following particulars about water-horses and water-bulls in his "Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe." They are thought of "as, upon the whole, of the same shape and form as the more kindly quadrupeds after whom they have been named, but larger, fiercer, and with an amount of `devilment' and cunning about them, of which the latter, fortunately, manifest no trace. They are always fat and sleek, and so full of strength and spirit and life that the neighing of the one and the bellowing of the other frequently awake the mountain echoes to their inmost recesses for miles and miles around. . . Calves and foals are the result of occasional intercourse between these animals and their more civilised domestic congeners, such calves bearing unmistakable proofs of their mixed descent in the unusual size and pendulousness of their ears and the wide aquatic spread of their jet black hoofs; the foals, in their clean limbs, large flashing eyes, red distended nostrils, and fiery spirit. The initiated still pretend to point out cattle with more or less of this questionable blood in them, in almost every drove of pure Highland cows and heifers you like to bring under their notice." The lochs of Llundavra, and Achtriachtan, in Glencoe, were at one time famous for their water-bulls; and Loch Treig for its water-horses, believed to be the fiercest specimens of that breed in the world. If anyone suggested to a Lochaber or Rannoch Highlander that the cleverest horse-tamer could "clap a saddle on one of the demon-steeds of Loch Treig, as he issues in the grey dawn, snorting, from his crystal-paved sub-lacustral stalls, he would answer, with a look of mingled horror and awe, 'Impossible!' The water-horse would tear him into a thousand pieces with his teeth and trample and pound him into pulp with his jet-black, iron-hard, though unshod hoofs!"

A noted demon-steed once inhabited Loch Ness, and was a cause of terror to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Like other kelpies, he was in the habit of browsing along the roadside, all bridled and saddled, as if waiting for some one to mount him. When any unwary traveller did so, the kelpy took to his heels, and presently plunged into deep water with his victim on his back. Mr. W. G. Stewart, in his "Highland Superstitions and Amusements," tells a story to show that the kelpy in question did not always have things his own way. A Highlander of the name of MacGrigor resolved to throw himself in the way of the water-horse in the hope of getting the better of him. The meeting took place in the solitary pass of Slochd-Muichd, between Strathspey and Inverness. The kelpy looked as innocent as usual, and was considerably startled when MacGrigor, sword in hand, struck him a blow on the nose. The weapon cut through the bridle, and the bit, falling to the ground, was instantly picked up by MacGrigor. This was the turning point of the encounter. The kelpy was powerless without his bit, and requested to have it restored. Though a horse, the kelpy had the power of human speech, and conversed, doubtless in excellent Gaelic, with his victor, using various arguments to bring about the restoration of his lost property. Finding that these were unavailing, he prophesied that MacGrigor would never enter his house with the bit in his possession, and when they arrived at the door he planted himself in front of it to block the entrance. The Highlander, however, outwitted the kelpy, for, going round to the back of his house, he called his wife and flung the bit to her through a window. Returning to the kelpy, he told him where the bit was, and assured him that he would never get it back again. As there was a rowan cross above the door the demon-steed could not enter the house, and presently departed uttering certain exclamations not intended for benedictions.. Those who doubt the truthfulness of the narrative may have their doubts lessened when they learn that this was not the only case of a water-horse's bit becoming the property of a human being. The Rev. Dr. Stewart narrates an anecdote bearing on this. A drover, whose home was in Nether Lochaber, was returning from a market at Pitlochry by way of the Moor of Rannoch. Night came on; but, as the moon was bright, he continued his journey without difficulty. On reaching Lochanna Cuile, he sat down to refresh himself with bread, cheese, and milk. While partaking of this temperate repast he caught sight of something glittering on the ground, and, picking it up, he found it to be a horse's bridle. Next morning he was astonished to find that the bit and buckles were of pure silver and the reins of soft and beautifully speckled leather. He was still more surprised to find that the bit when touched was unbearably hot. A'wise woman from a neighbouring glen was called in to solve the mystery. She at once recognised the article to be a water-horse's bridle, and accounted for the high temperature of the bit on the ground that the silver still retained the heat that it possessed when in a molten state below ground. The reins, she said, were made of the skin of a certain poisonous serpent that inhabited pools frequented by water-horses. According to her directions, the bridle was hung on a cromag or crook of rowan wood. Its presence brought a blessing to the house, and the drover prospered in all his undertakings. When he died, having no children of his own, he bequeathed the magical bridle to his grandnephew, who prospered in his turn.

A pool in the North Esk, in Forfarshire, called the Ponage or Pontage Pool, was at one time the home of a water-horse. This creature was captured by means of a magical bridle, and kept in captivity for some time. While a prisoner he was employed to carry stones to Morphie, where a castle was then being built. One day the bridle was incautiously removed, and the creature vanished, but not before he ex-claimed

"Sair back an' sair banes,
Carryin' the Laird o' Morphie's stares;
The Laird o' Morphie canna thrive
As lang's the kelpy is alive."

His attempted verse-making seems to have gratified the kelpy, for when he afterwards showed himself in the pool he was frequently heard repeating the rhyme. The fate of the castle was disastrous. At a later date it was entirely demolished, and its site now alone remains. Some six miles from the Kirkton of Glenelg, in Inverness-shire, is the small sheet of water known in the district as John Maclnnes' Loch. It was so called from a crofter of that name who was drowned there. The circumstances are thus narrated by Mr. J. Calder Ross in "Scottish Notes and Queries" for February, 1893: "John MacInnes found the labour of his farm sadly burdensome. In the midst of his sighing an unknown being appeared to him and promised a horse to him under certain conditions. These conditions John undertook to fulfil. One day, accordingly, he found a fine horse grazing in one of his fields. He happened to be ploughing at the time, and at once he yoked the animal to the plough along with another horse. The stranger worked splendidly, and he determined to keep it, though he well knew that it was far from canny. Every night when he stabled it he spread some earth from a mole's hill over it as a charm; according to another version he merely blessed the animal. One night he forgot his usual precautions: perhaps he was beginning to feel safe. The horse noticed the omission, and seizing poor John in his teeth, galloped off with him. The two disappeared in the loch."

Water-horses were not always malignant in disposition. On one occasion an Aberdeenshire farmer went with his own horse to a mill to fetch home some sacks of meal. He left the horse at the door of the mill and went in to bring out the sacks. The beast, finding itself free, started for home. When the farmer reappeared and found the creature gone he was much disconcerted, and uttered the wish that he might get any kind of horse to carry his sacks even though it were a water-kelpy. To his surprise, a water-horse immediately appeared! It quietly allowed itself to be loaded with the meal, and accompanied the farmer to his home. On reaching the house he tied the horse to an old harrow till he should get the sacks taken into the house. When he returned to stable the animal that had done him the good turn, horse and harrow were away, and he heard the beast plunging not far off in a deep pool in the Don. If anyone refuses to believe in the existence of water-horses, let him go to the parish of Fearn, in Forfarshire, and there, near the ruined castle of Vayne, he will see on a sandstone rock the print of a kelpy's foot. Noran Water flows below the castle, and the mysterious creature had doubtless its home in one of its pools. In Shetland, such kelpies were known as Nuggles, and showed themselves under the form of Shetland ponies.

MacCulloch, the author of "A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland," found the belief in the water-bull a living faith among the people, notably among the dwellers beside Loch Rannoch and Loch Awe. He tells of a farmer who employed his sons to search a certain stream for one of these creatures, while the farmer himself carried a gun loaded with sixpences to be discharged when the monster appeared, silver alone having any effect on such beasts. The same writer, when speaking of the grandeur of the scenery about Loch Coruisk, remarks:—"It is not surprising that Coruisk should be considered by the natives as the haunt of the water-goblin or of spirits still more dreadful. A seaman, and a bold one, whom, on one occasion, I had left in charge of the boat, became so much terrified at finding himself alone that he ran off to join his comrades, leaving it moored to the rock, though in danger of being destroyed by the surge. I afterwards overheard much discussion on the courage of the Southron in making the circuit of the valley unattended. Not returning till it was nearly dark, it was concluded that he had fallen into the fangs of the kelpy." MacCulloch's "Description" consists of a series of letters to Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter himself has an interesting reference to the same superstition in his "Journal," under date November 23rd, 1827. After enumerating the company at a certain dinner party at which he had been present, he continues: "Clanronald told us, as an instance of Highland credulity, that a set of his kinsmen—Borradale and others—believing that the fabulous `water-cow' inhabited a small lake near his house, resolved to drag the monster into day. With this view they bivouacked by the side of the lake in which they placed, by way of night-bait, two small anchors such as belong to boats, each baited with the carcase of a dog slain for the purpose. They expected the `water-cow' would gorge on this bait, and were prepared to drag her ashore the next morning, when, to their confusion of face, the baits were found untouched. It is something too late in the day for setting baits for water-cows." If such conduct seemed wonderful in 1827, what would the author of "Waverley" have thought had he known that more than half-a-century later, people in the Highlands retained a thoroughgoing belief in such monsters? No longer ago than 1884 rumours were current in Ross-shire that a water-cow was seen in or near a loch on the Greenstone Point, in Gairloch parish. Mr. J. H. Dixon, in his "Gairloch," states that about 1840 a water-cow was believed to inhabit Loch-na-Beiste, in the same parish, and that a serious attempt was then made to destroy the creature. The proprietor tried to drain the loch, which, except at one point, is little , more than a fathom in depth; but when his efforts failed he threw a quantity of quicklime into the water to poison the monster. It is reasonable to hold that the trout were the only sufferers. The creature in question was described by two men who saw it as in appearance like "a good sized boat with the keel turned up." Belief in the existence of water-cows prevailed in the south as well as in the north of Scotland. In the Yarrow district there was one inhabiting St. Mary's Loch. Concerning this water-cow, Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, writes: "A farmer in Bowerhope once got a breed of her, which lie kept for many years until they multiplied exceedingly; and he never had any cattle throve so well, until once, on some outrage or disrespect on the farmer's part towards them, the old dam came out of the lake one pleasant March evening and gave such a roar that all the surrounding hills shook again, upon which her progeny, nineteen in number, followed her all quietly into the loch, and were never more seen.

In the Isle of Man the water-bull was, and perhaps still is believed in by the peasantry. It is called in Manx, tarroo-ushtey. There is much force in Mr. Campbell's conclusion that the old Celts reverenced a destroying water-god, to whom the horse was sacred, or who assumed the form of, a horse. A similar notion may have originated the belief in the water-bull.

Other creatures, besides those already mentioned, acted in the capacity of water spirits. In Strathmartin, in Forfarshire, is a spring styled the Nine Maidens' Well. These maidens were the daughters of a certain Donewalde or Donald in the eighth century, and led, along with their father, a saintly life in the glen of Ogilvy in the same county. Their spring at Strathmartin must have been well looked after, for it had as its guardian, no less formidable a creature than a dragon. We do not know whether there was any St. George in the vicinity to dispute possession with the monster. In Kildonan parish, Sutherland, a stagnant pool of water, some ten yards long by three broad, was regarded by the inhabitants with superstitious dread. According to tradition, a pot of gold lay hidden below; but no one could reach the treasure as it was guarded by a large black dog with two heads. The Rev. Donald Sage, when noticing this superstition in his "Menwrabilia Dornestica," remarks, "It is said that a tenant once had attempted to drain the loch and had succeeded, so that the water was all carried off. The only remuneration the unfortunate agriculturist received was to be aroused from his midnight slumbers by a visit from the black dog, which set up such a hideous howl as made the hills reverberate and the poor man almost die with fright. Furthermore, with this diabolical music, he was regularly serenaded at the midnight hour till he had filled up the drain, and the loch had resumed its former dimensions." We do not know whether any later attempt was made to abolish the stagnant pool; but at any rate a dread of the black dog kept it from being again drained till well on in the present century. Sutherland, however, cannot claim a monopoly in the matter of a guardian spirit in the shape of a dog. Concerning Hound's Pool in Dean Combe parish, Devon, the tradition is that it is haunted by a hound doomed to keep guard till the pool can be emptied by a nutshell with a hole in it. Readers of "Peveril of the Peak" can hardly fail to remember the Moddey Dhoo — the black demon-dog — that roamed through Peel Castle, in the Isle of Man. St. Michael's Well in Kirkmichael parish, Banffshire, had for its guardian spirit a much smaller animal than any of the above. It showed itself in the form of a fly that kept skimming over the surface of the water. This fly was believed to be immortal. Towards the end of last century the spring lost its reputation for its cures, and the guardian spirit shared in its neglect. The writer of the article on the parish, in the "Old Statistical Account of Scotland," mentions having met an old man who greatly deplored the degeneracy of the times. A glowing picture is given of this old man's desires. "If the infirmities of years and the distance of his residence did not prevent him, he would still pay his devotional visits to the well of St. Michael. He would clear the bed of its ooze, opening a passage for the streamlet, plant the borders with fragrant flowers, and once more, as in the days of youth, enjoy the pleasure of seeing the guardian fly skim in sportive circles over the bubbling waves, and with its little proboscis imbibe the panacean dews."

Consecrated fish have been reverenced, from of old, in East and West alike. In Syria, at the present day, such fish are preserved in fountains; and anciently certain pools in the stream, flowing past Ascalon, were the abodes of fish sacred to Derketo, the Phoenician Venus, who had a temple there. In our own land the same cult prevailed. A curious Cornish legend tells how St. Neot had his well stocked with fish by an angel. These fish were always two in number. Day by day, the saint had one for dinner, and its place was miraculously supplied to keep up the proper number. One day he fell sick, and his servant, contrary to all ascetic precedent, cooked both and set them before his master. The saint was horrified, and had both the fish—cooked though they were—put back into the spring. He sought forgiveness for the rash act, and Jo! the fish became alive once more; and as a further sign that the sacrilege was condoned, St. Neot, on eating his usual daily portion, was at once restored to health. In Scotland there were various springs containing consecrated fish. Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, described by MacCulloch as "the haunt of the gentler spirits of air and water," abounded in trout; but, as Martin informs us, neither the natives nor strangers ever dared to kill any of them on account of the esteem in which the water was held. This superstition seems to have been specially cherished in the island, for Martin further says, "I saw a little well in Kilbride, in the south of Skie, with one Trout only in it; the natives are very tender of it, and though they often chance to catch it in their wooden pales, they are very careful to preserve it from being destroyed; it has been, there for many years." In a well near the church of Kilmore, in Lorne, were two fishes held in much respect in the seventeenth century, and called by the people of the district, Easg Seant, i.e., holie fishes. From Dalyell's "Darker Superstitions of Scotland" we learn that, like those belonging to St. Neot, they were always two in number: they never varied in size: in colour they were black, and according to the testimony of the most aged persons their hue never altered. In Tober Kieran, near Kells, County Meath, Ireland, were two miraculous trout which never changed their appearance. A Strathdon legend, narrated by the Rev. Dr. Gregor, thus accounts for the appearance of fish in Tobar Vachar, i.e., St. Macbar's Well, at Corgarfl', a spring formerly held in high honour on account of its cures:----"Once there was a famine in the district, and not a few were dying of hunger. The priest's house stood not far from the well. One day, during the famine, his housekeeper came to him and told him that their stock of food was exhausted, and that there was no more to be got in the district. The priest left the house, went to the well, and cried to St. Machar for help. On his return he told the servant to go to the well the next morning at sunrise, walk three times round it, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, without looking into it, and draw from it a draught of water for him. She carried out the request. On stooping down to draw the water, she saw three fine salmon swimming in the well. They were caught, and served the two as food, till supply came to the famine-stricken district from other quarters." According to a Herefordshire tradition, a fish with a golden chain round it was caught in the river Dore, and was afterwards kept in the spring whence the river flows. At Peterchurch, in that county, is a sculptured stone bearing a rude representation of the fish in question.

Sometimes the guardian spirit of a loch or well was thought of in the vaguest possible way. In that case the genius loci had neither name nor shape of any kind, the leaving of an offering being the only recognition of his existence. Occasionally the presiding spirit was pictured in the popular imagination in the guise of a demon, commonly with a hazy personality. Callow Pit, in Norfolk, was believed to contain a treasure-chest guarded by such a being. On one occasion an attempt to raise the chest was made, and was on the verge of being successful, when one of the treasure-hunters defied the devil to get his own again. Suddenly the chest was snatched down into the pit, and the ring, attached to the lid, alone remained to tell its tale. This ring was afterwards fixed to the door of Southwood Church. At Wavertree, in Lancashire, once stood a monastery and beside it was a well. When pilgrims arrived, the occupants of the monastery received their alms. If nothing was given, a demon, chained to the bottom of the well, was said to laugh. This notion was either originated or perpetuated by a fifteenth century Latin inscription to this effect, "Qui non dat quad habet. Daemon infra ridet." When wells were dedicated to Christian saints, the latter were usually considered the guardians of the sacred water. This was natural enough. If for instance, St. Michael was supposed to watch over a spring, why should not his aid have been sought in connection with any wished-for cure? It is interesting, however, to note that this was not so in every instance. In many cases the favourite, because favourable time for visiting a sacred spring, was not the festival of the saint to whom it was dedicated, but, as we shall see hereafter, a day quite distinct from such festival. Petitions, too, were frequently addressed not to the saint of the well, but to some being with a character possessing fewer Christian attributes. All this points to the fact that the origin of well-worship is to be sought, not in the legends of medieval Christianity, but in the crude fancies of an earlier paganism.


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