This second posting in advance of publication of my next book, Beyond Faery, examines some of the water beasts of Britain.
There are various faery beasts that infest fresh and salt water in the British Isles. They are primarily found in Scotland and they are primarily horse like.
These ‘water horses’ live in lakes. Usually people only encounter and have to deal with one, but at Loch Aird na h-uamh there are reported to be multiple horses. Some of these steeds, people have been brave enough to ride; some have even survived the attempt, though many of those who tried were drowned or torn to pieces.
Typical of the species is the horse found at Lochan-larig-eala near Breadalbane. It is a white horse and when it first appears on the lake side, it lies down on the grass and looks very placid and pretty. Nine children playing there once climbed on it- at which point it dashed for the water immediately. The child at the back was able to use the horse’s tail to swing off; the rest didn’t escape and it’s said that they were eaten and all that remained was their lungs, which floated ashore in due course. Some versions of this story say that it happened on a Sunday, so that the faery beast was actually being employed to punish children who were playing rather than attending church. In this second account, the boy who survived happened to have a few Bible pages in his pocket, which saved him.
Some water horses will submit to working for humans, just to be able to get near enough to kill one. The story is told of John MacInnes of Glenelg who was struggling with his farm work when he was approached by a stranger and offered assistance. He accepted, despite the odd conditions imposed, and immediately found a fine horse standing in his field. MacInnes used it for ploughing and was delighted to find that it was both strong and obedient. Things went very well for time, although every evening when the horse was stabled John had to make sure he threw earth from a mole-hill over its back and said a blessing. One night he forgot. The next day, as soon as they were out in the field, the horse grabbed him with its teeth and dragged him into the nearby loch. All that was ever recovered was his liver. The stipulation of the mole-hill is curious, but one way of trapping fairy cattle (and mermaids) on land is to sprinkle grave-yard earth across their path (Scottish Notes & Queries, vol.6, 1893).
There is an each uisge in Loch-nan-Spioradan in Strathspey, which is seen as a beautifully equipped horse. A local healer who managed to obtain the bit from this horse’s bridle found that it had great healing properties, especially for ‘maladies of the mind.’
Water horses are also known in Wales, where they’re called ceffyl y dwr. Like their more northerly counterparts, their habit is to tempt people to ride them- and then to destroy them. From the island of Guernsey there are reports of a white fairy horse that shared many of the traits of each-uisge. Its back could extend to accommodate as many victims as wanted to ride on it and, once the riders were settled, it would gallop off at alarming speed with its passengers unable to dismount. Luckily, on Guernsey, the aim of all this was relatively benign- it was just to give the victims a fright before they were dumped in a marsh.
The each uisge is a uniquely savage creature, most unlike the average horse used for riding (whether by humans or their fairy neighbours). From Breadalbane there also comes a report of a ‘fairy horse’ that was much more like the sort of animal known in the human world. A man spent an evening dancing in the sithean at Lawes. He enjoyed himself immensely and, at the end of the festivities, the fairies lent him a horse to get home, which flew through the air like lightning and dropped him down his chimney.
There are a number of less benign variations upon this supernatural steed. From Leeds, West Yorkshire, come reports of a ‘goblin horse’ that would allow people to mount it before it galloped off at high speed, shouting ‘I ride, Madge!’ and dumping the rider in a pond. Further north in Durham there are similar creatures called ‘brags.’ The Leeds area is also home to a ‘black dog’ apparition called the ‘padfoot’ (which I will discuss in a separate posting). These beings are notorious shapeshifters and, in one instance, it changed into a donkey which ran between a man’s legs and carried him off at speed to his home (to the accompaniment of clanking chains) before sinking into the earth.
The Isle of Man also has the mysterious ‘night horses,’ which seem to be a faery horse with some of the traits of the each uisge. These are found at night on roads, ready saddled and bridled, but if any is incautious enough to mount, he will find himself flying along at a terrifying pace before being dumped on the ground somewhere. The night horse seems to like to give shocks, but no more. The creature called the glashtyn, which can have human and equine form, is more deadly. In its horse shape it will carry off any who mount it and try to drown them in a nearby river or pool.
As mentioned, Wales has its own water horse, the ceffyl y dwr, which is in fact one of several water beasts known there- or, alternatively, there is a single water sprite that assumes a number of different forms. Amongst those identified, there is a thin old man who is seen in raging mountain streams, sometimes stretching out his bony arms to observers; there is the water horse proper that’s found in pools or in rivers, where it tries to seize fishermen’s lines and drag them into the waters, and, lastly, there’s a monstrous fish (generally a salmon) that will try to drag under those that hunt it. In one instance, a man who tried to spear it whilst out fishing on a Sunday was nearly drowned; he ascribed the fish’s attack to a righteous rage over his Sabbath breaking- something that’s also been said of the each uisge already, although this may be more a matter of his guilty conscience than the faery beast being recruited to policing the reformed religion.
Kelpies are often treated as being interchangeable with the each uisge, but whilst the former live in still fresh water, kelpies live in rivers or in the sea. They are just as unpleasant as the each. One sighted near Leurbost on the isle of Lewis in 1856 was described as looking like a “huge peat stack”- so large that a six oar boat could pass between the fins that were seen. Iit was up to forty feet in length, witnesses claimed, and it had swallowed whole a blanket left by the loch by girl tending cattle.
Kelpies have been called ‘sly devils.’ Very much like the each, the kelpie will often appear on the banks of a swollen stream, feeding tamely as a traveller approaches. If the person is already on a horse, the kelpie will trot across the stream ahead, suggesting that it is shallow and safe. If the person is on foot, he’ll be tempted to mount the horse and ride it across the river. If he does this, it will immediately gallop off with shrieks of terrifying laughter. Either way, the hapless traveller is overwhelmed by the flooding torrent. For these reasons, William Collins, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, described how the kelpie will:
“Instant, furious, raise the whelming flood,
O’er its drowned banks, forbidding all return…”
So that victims are “Drown’d by the kaelpie’s wrath.”
Sometimes, it is possible to tame a kelpie by surprising it and slipping over its head a halter that has been blessed by having crosses cut into the cheek pieces. The beast can then be used for farm labour, pulling loads and ploughs and such like. It can’t escape as long as the bridle is kept on it, however badly it’s treated. Kelpies have been used like this to help build churches and castles all around Scotland.
Interestingly, like fairies, it’s said that kelpies can predict or see future events. They are said, around Buckhaven, to roar before a loss at sea. Likewise, at Rumbling Bridge in Clackmannanshire, the kelpie predicts drownings by lights and noises at night (although, admittedly, it is also that same kelpie that helps to drown many of these unfortunate people). At St Vigeans, near Arbroath, a kelpie had been used to build the church and, when finally released, it foretold the minister’s death by suicide and collapse of the church. Both these things happened in the early eighteenth century. The kelpie that was used to build the church of St Mungo’s in Dumfriesshire advised that a larger graveyard than had been planned ought to be laid out, as it would be needed one day to accommodate all the bodies from a nearby battle.
Given their violent propensities, people have often tried to hunt and exterminate kelpies living in their vicinity. This is, perhaps predictably, very difficult to do, because the kelpie is a hardy, elusive and indestructible creature. In the 1780s, for example, Highlanders tried to drag Loch Garn with nets to catch the underwater beast. They failed to catch it, after which they tried scattering lime in the loch to kill the monster. Neither succeeded.
In the far north of Scotland and on Orkney and Shetland you’ll encounter (if you’re very unlucky) the njugl or neogle, a creature seen near water mills that resembles a pony. It will stop the mill wheel to gain attention and, when the miller goes out to see what the problem might be, he will find the pony, saddled and bridled, grazing nearby. If he mounts it, it will dash for the water and leap off the bank, with both rider and mount vanishing in a flash of flame. Wiser millers chase the creature off with a red hot poker or similar. A notorious example of the nuggle used to plague the Orkney island of Hoy. It lived in a small lake on the north-east coast of the island, called the Water o’ Hoy, but frequented the ford over the Pegal Burn, a little further to the south, where it would try to catch hapless travellers.
In the Scottish Highlands and on Orkney and Shetland a variety of other terrifying and often hybrid beasts were known. Some of these are mentioned in my forthcoming posting on boggles. Here I’ll mention one that seemed to have no specific name. Over Yule on Shetland people were not expected to do any of their normal day to day activities or work. Once, however, two men went out fishing in defiance of the prohibition. They netted a monstrous creature that was half fish and half horse and which spoke, declaring to them: “Man who fished in Yule week/ Fortune never more did seek.” Once again, these supernatural beings seem to be recruited to back up religious rules and festivals.
As I have discussed previously, you may encounter fairy cattle owned by the good folk, which have their own identifying characteristics, but there are also water bulls, the tarbh uisge of the Highlands. The bulls of Glenlochay near Breadalbane are said to be brindled, red and yellow. A cow will abandon its herd and travel up the glen to the lochan, where she will bellow until the tarbh appears and mates with her. The hybrid offspring are known to be those of a tarbh because they are all black with curly hair.
On the Isle of Man, water bulls are also found, being called tarroo ushtey. They’re recognised by their shining coats and sharp ears. They often mix with normal herds of cattle, and rouse the fury of the bulls kept with them, although the tarroo seems indifferent to the rage of the farmer’s bull. They can be fierce, but they often move quite slowly, making a strange whirring sound.
In one Manx story a farmer objected to the bull grazing with his herds and consuming his valuable grass, so he drove it off several times. The result, though, was that blights struck his crops. A wise-woman told the man that he could subdue the tarroo with a stick made from rowan wood- which he duly did. Having the beast under his control, he resolved to sell it at the market. He was easily able to drive the bull there, but no-one seemed interested, despite the size and sleekness of the animal. Right at the end of the day, a man finally showed interest, but he asked the farmer to ride the bull to prove that it was tame and well-behaved. Desperate for the sale, he consented to this, but as soon as he’d mounted he dropped his rowan switch. This of course released the tarroo from his control and it bolted, nearly carrying the man off into a deep pool in the river. He narrowly escaped- and learned his lesson, which was to always show the proper respect to the fairies and the faery beasts.
Also found on the Isle of Man is the glashtin, a sort of bogie that will very commonly take on equine form and which will inhabit pools and rivers. Unlike the tarroo ushtey, the glashtin is said to mingle with the herds of horses kept by Manx farmers without any disturbance or hostility between the animals. However, the glashtins only liked to mate with pure Manx-bred ponies, and as the island’s horses interbred more and more with outside breeds, the glashtin was seen less and less.
If you’re interested to learn more, see too my separate posting on water beasts. Additionally, several chapters of Beyond Faery deal in detail with the many aspects of the lore of the inland and marine water beasts of Britain. The book is due for release in early November.