Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Water-Horses of Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag

 Many a Scottish loch lays claim to a water-horse, but how many can say they have a whole herd living beneath the still dark surface? Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag in the North West Highlands is said to be home to not one Each Uisge, but a whole herd! If you've not heard of the infamous water-horse, you can read more about them here in a previous blog. Unusually, this particular story has a reasonably happy ending with no deaths or gore, which does make a change from the usual ending of the water-horse dragging it's victim into the deep murky waters to their doom. This tale comes from Selected Highland Folk-Tales, by Ronald Macdonald Robertson (1961):

"One afternoon in the autumn of 1938, Mary Falconer, a woman of Achlyness in West Sutherland, was taking a shortcut with a companion through the hills to Ardchullin with some venison in a sack slung over her shoulder.

On nearing Loch Garget Beag, she noticed a number of ponies grazing by the lochside. Thinking that one of the beasts - a white one - was her next-door-neighbour's sheltie, and that she would make use of it for carrying her heavy load on it's back the rest of the journey to Rhiconish, she walked towards the animal.

As she came within  a few feet on it, however, she discovered that it was a much larger pony than her neighbour's and to her astonishment, she saw round its neck, entangled with its mane, a cluster of water weeds. The eyes of the animal and the woman met; and in that instant she sensed that she was looking on an "each uisge" and on no ordinary beast.

To her amazement, there and then the whole group of about thirteen ponies, on noticing her, galloped to the edge of the water, and plunging into the loch, sank below the surface in front of her eyes.

Her companion corroborated her story in every particular. The people of Kinlochbervie and district are firmly convinced that Loch Garbet Beag houses in its depths not one water-horse, but a whole herd."

A more typical ending can be found in a tale in Helen Drever's beautifully titled 'The Lure of the Kelpie' (1937) said to have taken place in a loch on the west of Sutherland. The kelpie of the loch was particularly fond of children and when the children came out of school one day he appeared there as a fine horse, and of course the children couldn't resist fussing over such a beautiful beast and child after child climbed up upon it's back, all in a neat row. Only one boy refused, a boy named Dougal, something warned him to keep away. But boys will be boys, and he couldn't resist entirely and gently stroked the horse's coat with one finger. He felt an uncanny power drawing him nearer and he knew that something was very very wrong. He whipped his knife out from his pocket and gave a great slash at his finger, releasing himself from the powers of the Kelpie. His finger remained stuck fast to it's coat! The kelpie gave a snort and then "to the horror of the teacher, who had just appeared at the door of the school, he soared up into the air in the direction of the loch. He poised himself above it for a second and then with a great splash kelpie and children all disappeared below its surface."

Drever uses the names of 'Water-horse' and 'Kelpie' interchangeably, as does Stewart in his 'Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland' (1823), but they are sometimes described as different creatures, with Water-Horses dwelling in the still waters of lochs, and Kelpies in the running water of streams and rivers. Stewart gives Water-horses a very bad name indeed, describing them as infernal agents, retained in the service and pay of Satan. "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, the Kelpie "had no authority to touch a human being of his own free accord, unless the latter was the aggressor", hence why he would appear as a fine steed to tempt a passerby into mounting his back.

If you'd like to take your chances and visit Loch a Gharbh-bhaid Beag, it can be reached by parking in Rhiconich and following the beautiful riverside path along the Rhiconich River heading South-East. Eventually the river widens into a beautiful still loch with a dilapidated boathouse. No signs of water-horses when we visited though!

Sources & Further Information
Selected Highland Folk Tales, Ronald Macdonald Robertson
Travellers' Tales of Caithness and Sutherland, Helen Drever & Ronald Macdonald Robertson
The Lure of the Kelpie, Drever
Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, Stewart