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Popular Superstitions of the Highlands

‘When thaws dissolve the snawy hoord,
An’ float the jingling icy boord,
The water-kelpies haunt the foord,
By your direction,
And nightly travellers are allur’d
To their destruction.

BURNS’ Address to the Deil.

In the former and darker ages of the world, when people had not half the wit and sagacity they now possess, and when, consequently, they were much easier duped by such designing agents, the "Ech Uisque," or Water-Horse, as the Kelpie is commonly called, was a well known character in those countries. The Kelpie was an infernal agent, retained in the service and pay of Satan, who granted him a commission to execute such services as appeared profitable to his Interest. He was an amphibious character, and generally took up his residence in lochs and pools, bordering on public roads and other situations, most convenient for his professional calling. His commission consisted in the destruction of human beings, without affording them time to prepare for their immortal interests, and thus endeavour to send their souls to his master, while he, the Kelpie, enjoyed the body. However, he had no authority to touch a human being of his own free accord, unless the latter was the aggressor. In order, therefore, to delude public travellers and others to their destruction, it was the common practice of the Kelpie to assume the most fascinating form, and assimulate himself to that likeness, which he supposed most congenial to the inclinations of his intended victim. The likeness of a fine riding steed was his favourite disguise. Decked out in the most splendid riding accoutrements, the perfidious Kelpie would place himself in the weary traveller’s ways and graze by the road-side with all the seeming innocence and simplicity in the world. The traveller, supposing this fine horse to have strayed from his master, and considering him as a good catch for carrying him a part of the way, would approach the horse with the greatest caution, soothing it with proogy proogy, and, many other terms, of endearment, in the event of his taking to his heels, as wild horses are sometimes apt to do. But this horse knew better what he was about; he was as calm and peaceable as a lamb, until his victim was once fairly mounted on his back; with a fiend-like yell he would then announce his triumph, and plunging headlong with his woe-struck rider into an adjacent pool, enjoy him for his repast. The following curious relation, communicated to the cornpiler by the celebrated Mr Wellox, who possesses the precious relic captured from the kelpie alluded to in the story, will complete all the information that is necessary regarding this once formidable entrapper of mankind.

"In the time of my renowned ancestor, Mr James Macgrigor, (rest to his soul!) who was well known to be a good man, and a man of great strength and courage in his day, there was a most mischievous water—kelpie that lived in Lohness, and which committed the most atrocious excesses on the defenceless inhabitants of the surrounding districts. It was the common practice of this iniquitous agent to prowl about the public roads, decked out in all the trappings of a riding horse, and, in this disguise, place himself in the way of the passenger, who often took it into his head to mount him to his no small prejudice; for upon this the vicious brute would immediately fly into the air, and in a jiffy light with his rider in Lochnadorb, Lochspynie, or Lochness, where he would enjoy his victim at his leisure. Filled with indignation at the repeated relations he had heard of the kelpie’s practices, my ancestor, Mr Macgrigor, ardently wished to fall in with his kelpieship, in order to have a bit of a communing with him touching his notorious practices. And Providence, in its wise economy, thought it meet that Mr Macgrigor should be gratified in his wish.

"One day as he was travelling along ‘Sloe Muichd,’ a wild and solitary pass on the road between Strathspey and Inverness, whom did he observe but this identical water-kelplie browsing away by the road-side with the greatest complacency, thinking, no doubt, in his mind, that he would kidnap Mr Macgrigor as he had done others. But in this idea he found himself woefully mistaken! For no sooner did Mr Macgrigor espy him, than he instantly determined to have a trial of his mettle. Accordingly, marching up to the horse, who thought, no doubt, he was just coming to mount him, Mr Macgrigor soon convinced him of the contrary by drawing his trusty sword,. with which he dealt the kelpie such a pithy blow on the nose, as almost felled him to the ground. The stroke maltreated the kelpie’s jaw very considerably, cutting through his bridle, in consequence of which, one of the bits, being that which you have just examined, fell down on the ground. Observing the bit lying at his feet, Mr Macgrigor had the curiosity to pick it up, whilst the astonished kelpie was recovering from the effects of the blow, and this bit Mr Macgrigor carelessly threw into his pocket. He then prepared for a renewal of his conflict with its former owner, naturally supposing the kelpie would return him his compliment. But what was Mr Macgrigor’s surprise, when he found that, instead of retorting his blow, and fighting out the matter to the last, the kelpie commenced a cool dissertation upon the injustice and illegality of Mr Macgrigor’s proceedings. ‘What is your business with me?’ says he. ‘ What is your business with me, Mr Macgrigor? I have often heard of you as a man of great honour and humanity; why, therefore, thus abuse a poor defenceless animal like me, let me be a horse, or let me be a kelpie, so long as I did you no harm. In my humble opinion, Mr Macgrigor,’ continued, the kelpie, ‘you acted both cruelly and illegally; and certainly your conduct would justify me, if I should return you twofold your assault upon me. However, I abominate quarrels of this sort,’ says the conciliatory kelpie, ‘and if you peaceably return me the bit of my bridle, we shall say no more on the subject.’ To this learned argument of the kelpie Mr Macgrigor made no other reply, than flatly denying his request in the first place; and, in the second place, mentioning, in pretty unqualified terms, his opinion of his character and profession. ‘ It is true,’ replied the other, ‘that I am what you call a kelpie; but it is known to my heart, that my profession was never quite congenial to my feelings. We kelpies engage in many disagreeable undertakings. But, as the proverb says, Necessity has no law; and there is no profession that a man or spirit will not sometimes try, for the sake of an honest livelihood, so you will please have the goodness to give me the bit of my bridle.’ Observing the great anxiety evinced by the kelpie to have the bit of his bridle restored to him, and feeling anxious to learn its properties, my sagacious ancestor immediately concocted a plan, whereby he might elicit from the poor dupe of a kelpie an account of its virtues. ‘Well, Mr Kelpie,’ says Mr Macgrigor, ‘all your logic cannot change my opinion of the criminality of your profession, though, I confess, it has somewhat disarmed me of my personal hostility to you as a member of it; I am, therefore, disposed to deliver up to you the bit of your bridle, but it is on this express condition, that you will favour me with an account of its use and qualities, for I am naturally very curious, do you know.’ To this proposition the kelpie joyfully acceded, and thus addressed Mr Macgrigor: ‘My dear Sir, you must know that such agents as I are invested by our Royal Master with a particular commission, consisting of some document delivered to us by his own hand. The commission delivered to a kelpie consists in a bridle invested with all those powers of transformation, information, and observation, necessary for our calling; and whenever we lose this commission, whether voluntarily or by accident, our power is at an end, and certain annihilation within four and twenty hours is the consequence. Had it not been that my bridle was broken by your matchless blow, I must be so candid as to declare, I might have broken every bone in your body; but now, you are stronger than myself, and you can be haIf a kelpie at your pleasure :- only please to look through the holes of the bit of the bridle, and you will see myriads of invisible agents, fairies, witches, and devils, all flying around you, the same as if you had been gifted with the second sight, and all their machinations clearly exposed to your observation.’—.’My dear Sir,’ replied my ancestor, ‘I am much obliged to you for your information; but I sorry to inform you, that your relation has so endeared the bit of your bridle to myself, that I have resolved to keep it for your sake. I could not persuade myself to part with it for any consideration whatever.’—’ What!’ exclaimed the petrified Kelpie, ‘do you really mean, in the face of our solemn agreement, to retain the bit of my bridle ?‘—‘ I not only mean it, but I am resolved on it,’ replies my ancestor, who immediately proceeded to make the best of his way home with the bit. ‘Come, come,’ the Kelpie would perpetually exclaim, you have carried the joke far enough, you surely do not mean to keep my bridle?‘—‘Time will show,’ was always his laconic answer. The Kelpie still continued his earnest entreaties, interlarded with anecdotes of great squabbles which he had formerly had with as powerful characters as Mr Macgrigor, and which always ended to his eminent advantage, but which, he politely insinuated, he would be sorry to see repeated. But when his grief and solicitude for his bridle began to evince themselves in a threatening aspect, a single flourish of this trusty sword disarmed him of all his might, and made him calm as a cat. At length, when they arrived in sight of Mr Macgrigor’s house, his grief and despair for his bridle became perfectly outrageous. Galloping off before Mr Macgrigor, the Kelpie told him as he went, that he and the bit should never pass his threshold together; and, in pursuance of this assurance, he planted himself in Mr Macgrigor’s door, summoning up all his powers for the impending conflict. However, James Macgrigor resolved, if possible, to evade the Kelpie’s decree; and accordingly going to a back window on his house, he called his wife towards him, and threw the bit of the Kelpie’s bridle into her lap. He then returned to the Kelpie, who stood sentry at his door, and told him candidly he was a miserable legislator; for that, in spite of his decree, the bit of his bridle was that moment in his wife’s possession. The Kelpie now finding himself fairly outwitted, saw the vanity of contending with James Macgrigor and his claymore, for what could not be recovered. As there was a rowan cross above the door, his kelpieship could no more enter the house than he could pass through the eye of a needle; and he, therefore, thought it best to take himself off, holding forth, at the same time, the most beastly language to my ancestor, which he most sincerely despised."


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