On the other hand, the bodily forms, which the creatures of Gaelic mythology bear, often seem to have a foundation in fact.
The WATER-BULL is like a common bull, though he is amphibious and supernatural, and has the power of assuming other shapes. He may have been a buffalo, or bison, or bos primogenious long ago; or even a walrus, though mythology may have furnished his attributes. There were human-headed bulls at Nineveh, and sacred bulls in Egypt, which had to do with inundations. Bulls are sculptured on ancient Scotch stones; and there is a water-bull in nearly every Scotch loch of any note. Loch Ness is full of them, “but they never go up to the Fall of Foyers.”
Here are some conversations which took place on the hill-side and elsewhere.
D. “Water bulls! Did not the uncle of that man see him!”
C. “Well, what was he like?”
D. “Well, my father’s brother was a herd, and he was herding at the end of that loch, and he saw the water-bull coming out of the water; he was close to him. He was a little ugly beast, not much more than the size of a stirk, and rough, and ‘gorm-ghlas’ – blue-gray, * * * and my uncle marked down the day, and the hour, and all about it.” (Here some details omitted.) “Now, my uncle was not a man to think he saw a thing when he did not see it; he was a quiet, steady man, and he told his master all about it.”
E. “Oh, yes; that’s true enough.”
D. “I would not give a snuff for what a man sees in the night; he might go wrong. Many a time have I gone to look at a thing which I saw in the night, and it was but a stone or a tree. But what a man sees in the bright, clear white day-light, that is another thing. There’s my brother, he was working one day at the end of that loch. I remember the day chosen well. It was a choice fine day; I was working myself, at the end of Loch —–, and it was so calm, and still, and quiet, not a breath of wind moving. Well, my brother saw that loch with great waves breaking all round it, from the middle on the shores, and that is certain sure; a thing which a man sees by the white light of day, in the light of the sun, is not like what a man sees in night. Well do I mind that day.”
C. “And did you ever hear that the bull did harm to any body?”
D. “No never; but it cannot be a good thing, or, in a small loch like that it would be seen oftener. It could not keep hid.”
C takes a mental note of the narrator’s earnest poetical figurative language and features, which tell of firm belief in the mystic bull, and proceeds to ask questions of other inhabitants.
Boy, “Oh, yes, they see water-bulls often about that loch. My father has been herd there for fourteen years and he has never seen anything, but there was a woman one evening coming across Loch —– in a boat, and she heard him blowing and snorting, and she turned back, and left the boat, and stretched out home. That was the water-horse, not the bull.”
C thinks of the rules of evidence and the blowing of an angry otter, and smokes gravely.
Boy No. 2, carrying knapsack along a road distant some twenty miles from boy 1. “There are no water-bulls down here (the sea), but up at the small loch which is in that glen there are plenty of water-horses. Men have seen him walking about the shore of the lake. He is just like another horse, but much wilder like. He is gray. There was an old soldier up at that loch last summer; he was living in a booth with his wife, fishing trout, and getting small white things out of shells that he finds there. He says he gets eighteen shillings and a pound for them; they will be setting them in rings.”
“One night he heard the water-horse blowing and splashing in the loch, and he got such a fright that he stretched out and left the place, and he would not go there again.”
C smokes, and sees a vision of a pearl fishery guarded by the water-horse guards, of a knowing old genius whom he had met on the road, moving his camp to the south.
Man, a hundred miles away in another island, declares “that he has often seen bulls feeding about the lake sides with the cattle, and the cows often had calves. They are ‘corcach,’ short-eared, a cross between the water-bull and a land-cow. They are easily known. No one has ever seen a water-cow.”
“Loch Aird na h-uamh is famous for water-horses. They have been ridden to market. Some men who mounted them have been drowned, others had very narrow escapes. The other water-horses sometimes tore the one that had been ridden to pieces. They are just like other horses, but live under water.”
Boy in another island. “There are no water-bulls here, but in a loch near B—–, where I come from, they are seen very often. I saw a man that saw one in that loch. He saw nothing but his back, but the loch was all in waves, though it was a calm day. That has been seen not once or twice, but various times.
Audience suddenly remembers that Scotland was shaken by a slight earthquake some years ago.
Boy in another island. “That is not the lake where the water-horse was seen. It was down south. It is a large lake where there might be many a thing that a man might not know; but the man saw, as it were, the likeness of a man rising up out of the water, and that must have been a bad spirit.”
As this was a place where the telling of stories, and music are interdicted, and the poor, mild-water-bull had now become a bad spirit, it seemed worth finding out what change had followed in the popular manners.
C. “Will there be many people at the market?”
B. “There will be a great many.”
“Do they all come to buy and sell?”
“Oh! no; they just come.”
“Will there be music there?”
“There will not.”
“Will there be drinking?”
“Oh! that there will indeed.”
L. “They will be so wild after the market that I cannot let you take the gig, unless a big man goes with it; they would kill the boy and the horse.”
C meets a most quiet, orderly, decorous set of polite, civil men and women going to market with their beasts, and wonders. He remembers the old fun and frolic of a Highland fair, the dancing the games, the shinny, the processions, the races, the happy faces, the sober family parties returning home; and if he does remember to have heard of a drunken riot now and then amongst the wilder spirits, that was not the prominent feature of a Highland fair thirty years ago. At night he is told that if he persists in asking a man to play the fiddle, the neighbours will certainly “commit a breach of the peace.” Wonders still more. A few days after he is overtaken by some very noisy, drunken, uncivil, riotous, quarrelsome creatures, who have not enough brains left to whistle a tune or to tell a story withal, and therefore the suppression of innocent amusement does not appear to him to have done much good. Here are men naturally polite, full of fun, wit, imagination, and poetry, forced to let off all the steam at once, and making beasts of themselves in consequence.
Within a few miles, men who had not been to market were sober, pleasant, and amusing, repeating good poetry to a pleased audience, but they too were very glad to have a dram. More’s the pity.
Why should not the uneducated be taught with a liberal spirit?
But to return to the water-bull. The following story shews him as the friend of man, and the foe of the savage water-horse, and that is his usual character in popular mythology.
No. 383. – In one of the islands here (Islay), on the northern side, there lived before now a great farmer, and he had a large stock of cattle. It happened one day that a calf was born amongst them, and an old woman who lived in the place, as soon as ever she saw it, ordered that it should be put in a house by itself, and kept there for seven years, and fed on the milk of three cows. And as every thing which this old woman advised was always done in the “baile,” this also was done. (It is to be remarked that the progeny of the water-bull can be recognised by an expert by the shape of the ears.)
A long time after these things a servant girl went with the farmer’s herd of cattle to graze them at the side of a loch, and she sat herself down near the bank. There, in a little while, what should she see walking towards her but a man (no description of him given in this version), who asked her to “fàsg” his hair. She said she was willing enough to do him that service, and so he laid his head on her knee, and she began to arrange his locks, as Neapolitan damsels also do by their swains. But soon she got a great fright, for, growing amongst the man’s hair, she found a great quantity of “Liobhagach an locha,” a certain slimy green weed that abounds in such lochs, fresh, salt, and brackish. (In another version it was sand.) The girl knew that if she screamed there was an end of her, so she kept her terror to herself, and worked away till the man fell asleep, as he was with his head on her knee. Then she untied her apron strings, and slid the apron quietly on to the ground with its burden upon it, and then she took her feet home as fast as it was in her heart. (This incident I have heard told in the Isle of Man and elsewhere, of a girl and a supernatural.) Now when she was getting near the houses she gave a glance behind her, and there she saw her “caraid” (friend) coming after her in the likeness of a horse.
He had nearly reached her, when the old woman who saw what was going on called out to open the door of the wild bull’s house, and in a moment out sprang the bull.
He gave an eye all round about him, and then rushed off to meet the horse, and when they met they fought, and they never stopped fighting till they drove each other out into the sea, and no one could tell which of them was best. Next day the body of the bull was found on the shore all torn and spoilt, but the horse was never more seen at all.
The narrator prefaced this story by remarking that it was “perfectly true,” for he had it from a lobster fisher, who heard it from an old man who witnessed the whole scene. It was suggested to him that the “old woman” was a witch, but he would have his story told in his own way, and said, “Well, I suppose she was a witch, but I did not hear it.”
Mr. Pattison, who wrote down this version, regrets that he did not get a fuller description of the animals. I have a fuller description of them, and of the girl, with all the names of the people, and the places, fully set forth. The bull was large and black, he was found groaning in a peat hag, and was helped by the girl’s lover, who brought him food, though he suspected him to be the water-bull. The girl was dark-haired and brown-eyed, and the farmer’s daughter. Her lover was an active Highland lad, and a drover, who went by the name of “Eachan còir nan òrd,” “Gentle Hector of the hammers,” and he was fair-haired.
There was a rejected rival suitor who takes the place of the water-horse, who threw his plaid over the girl’s head when she is at a shieling, and carried her off, but the black water-bull rushed in just at the nick of time, crushed the wicked wooer to the earth, invited the lady to mount on his back, and carried her safely home, when he disappeared, singing –
Chaidh conadh rium le òigear caomh,
‘S ri òigh rinn mise bàigh
Déigh tri cheud bliadhna do dh’ aosa chruaidh
Thoir fuasgladh dhomh gun dàil.
Aid came to me by a gentle youth,
And to a maiden I brought aid;
After three hundred years of my hard age,
Give me my freedom without delay.
This clearly then is as mythical a bull as the “black bull o’ Norroway,” and Mr. Peter Buchan’s bull in Rashencoatie, and the dun bull in Katie Woodencloak, and Candlemas bull which was looked for in the sky, and the sign Taurus; and perhaps the “Tarbh uisge,” is of the same breed as that famous Egyptian bull who was the god of the land of Scota, Pharoah’s daughter.
The WATER-HORSE is generally but a vicious, amphibious, supernatural horse; and there is a real sea-creature whose head may have suggested that there were real horses in the sea. But there were sacred horses every where in the East, so the attributes of water-horses are probably mythological. But the water-horse assumes many shapes; he often appears as a man, and sometimes as a large bird. In this last form he was “seen” by a certain man, who described him. The narrator waded up to his shoulders one cold day in February, in a certain muir loch, to get a shot at him; but when he got within “eighty-five yards” of him, the animal dived, and the sportsman, after waiting for “three quarters of an hour,” returned to shore. There he remained for more than “five hours and a half,” but the creature never rose. In form and colour he was very like the Great Northern Diver, with the exception of the white on his neck and breast; the wings were of the same proportion, the neck was “two feet eleven inches long,” and “twenty-three in circumference;” bill about “seventeen inches long,” and hooked like an eagle’s at the end; legs very short, black, and powerful; feet webbed till within five inches of the toes, with tremendous claws. Footprints, as measured in the mud at the north end of the lake, cover a space equal to that contained within the span of a pair of large antlers; voice like the roar of an angry bull; lives on calves, sheep, lambs, and otters,” etc. If that “eye-witness” had only taken his long bow with him instead of his gun, I have no doubt he might have secured a specimen of the “Boobrie.” Nevertheless, I have heard of the Boobrie from several people who were beyond the reach of this “eye-witness;” so he has a real existence in the popular mind.
The dragon which haunts Highland sea lochs and Gaelic stories surely had the same origin as the Norse sea-serpent, figured in the wood-cut, and the great sea-snake of the Edda, which encircled the whole world. The bodily shape might have been that of a survivor of an extinct species, the attributes those of a sea-god. The creature figured by Pontippidan has relations at the Crystal Palace, and in geological museums; and yet the bishop knew nothing of geology a hundred years ago.
Even the FAIRIES seem to have a foundation in fact. If the Dean of the Isles told the truth in his book of statistics, quoted above, the bones of pigmies have been found; and the ancient habitations of a diminutive race are still found occasionally in the sand hills of South Uist, and elsewhere. In a “Sithchean,” near Sligechean in Skye, piping used to be commonly heard, according to some of my informants. One of my acquaintance is commonly reported to fly with the fairies. They take him to certain churchyards, and bring him back again. A lout of a boy, who informed me that stories were very wicked, nevertheless added –
“That fairies are, is certain. I know two sisters – one of them is a little deaf – and they heard a sound in a hill, and they followed the sound; and did they not sit and listen to the piping there till they were seven times tired! There is no question about that.”
A worthy antiquary shewed me, amongst a lot of curious gear, a stone arrow head, and said –
“That is a fairy dart, which a man brought me a few days ago. He said he heard a whistling in the air, and that it fell at his feet in the road, and he picked it up, and brought it away with him.”
A tinker assured me, with evident belief, that a man had taken such an arrow from an ash-tree, where he had heard it strike.
A doctor told this anecdote –
“Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to “go with the fairies,” and he said to him —
“ ‘I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them.’
“ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we had not gone far when the man called out, “Tha iad so air tighin.” These are come. I see a number of ‘sluagh’ the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.’ And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.
“Well,” said the doctor, “the man was a bold fellow, and he held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me_ he was fairly lifted up by the ‘sluagh,’ and taken away from him, and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And,” said the doctor, “that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending.”
Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.
“There was a piper in this island, and he had three sons. The two eldest learned the pipes, and they were coming on famously; but the youngest could not learn at all. At last, one day, he was going about in the evening, very sorrowfully, when he saw ‘bruth,’ a fairy hillock, laid open.” (There was one close to the house, which had been exactly like the rest of its class. It was levelled, and human bones were found in it, according to the minister). “He went up to the door, and he struck his knife into it, because he had heard from old people that if he did that, the ‘sluagh’ could not shut the door. Well, they were very angry, and asked him what he wanted, but he was not a bit afraid. He told them that he could not play the pipes a bit, and asked them to help him. They gave him ‘Feadan dubh,’ a black chanter, but he said –
“ ‘That’s no use to me, for I don’t know how to play it.’
“Then they came about him, and shewed him how to move his fingers; that he was to lift this one and lay down that; and when he had been with them a while, he thanked them, and took out his knife, and went away, and the ‘Bruth’ closed behind him.
“Now that man became one of the most famous pipers in —–, and his people were alive till very lately. I am sure you all know that?”
Chorus – “Oh yes.” “Yes, indeed.” “It is certain that there were such people, whether they are now or not.” “O yes, that is sure” –
“Do I not know a man who was in the island of —–, and he was sitting by himself in a hut, with a fire lit; and it was a wild night. The door was pushed open, and a gray horse put in his head. But the man was not afraid, and put up the palm of his hand this way to the horse’s nose, and he said, ‘You worthy horse, you must go away from this;’ and the horse went out backwards.” “And were there no horses in the island?” “No; never, never.” Chorus – “Never, never.” “That was the water-horse.” “That’s sure.”
A boy, some hundreds of miles away, told me that “there was a man who built a house, and as often as it was built it was burned down; but they told him to put a bit of ivy into it, and he did that, and the house was not burned that time.
All England was dressing its churches and dinner tables with Christmas ivy a short time ago, but few will think that this is a Celtic charm against the fairies, or that ivy was planted against houses to guard them from fire.
An old Welsh dairymaid, from near Shropshire, denied all knowledge of King Arthur. “She had never heard of him, not she.” She did not know of her own knowledge that the fairies carried people away, but she had heard that a woman, who lived some distance from her father’s house, had two children carried off by fairies. They left her two others, which were just like her own; but they were always crying. She went to a wise woman, and she told her to go to a river where there was a bridge – a single plank like – and to take one of the children in each hand, and drop them in the middle.
“Well, I cannot say if it is true. I can only tell it as I heard it; but I heard that the woman did take the two children, and drop them into the middle of the stream; and when she got home she found her own two children, quite safe and well, in the house before her.”
Therre must be some foundation for all this widespread belief in the existence of a small people. A woman lately described their dress and appearance as seen in Islay. “They were dressed in green kilts, and green coats, and green conical caps – sharp caps like the “Clogadan,” helmets which children make of rushes.” A rim is woven into a kind of basket-work coronet, and the points are gathered together and make a high cone. Swedish Lapps now wear caps of the same shape. Fairies thus dressed have been seen marching “like a wedding,” with a piper playing before them; and such a procession goes by the name of “Banais shìth,” a fairy wedding.
“And did they ever wear arms?”
“No; they had not pith enough to bear arms; they were but spirits.”
Nevertheless, they had bodily strength, and worked hand mills, if all tales be true.
This class of stories is so widely spread, so matter-of-fact, hangs so well together, and is so implicitly believed all over the united kingdom, that I am persuaded of the former existence of a race of men in these islands who were smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stolen children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses, and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls, and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.
I leave it to ethnologists and geologists to say whether this popular supernatural history has any bearing upon modern discoveries; whether it may not be referred to the same period as the lake habitations of Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, and the Scotch Isles; the sepulchral chambers containing human remains, and surrounded by bones which appear to be those of animals now extinct; the works of art in the drift; and the relics of fossil men.
And here with an apology for this lengthy postscript, I will leave Highland Tales for the consideration of learned men well read in mythology and like subjects.1
2 thoughts on “Supernatural History, pp.299-315.”